By: Emily Chang
Walking through the streets of Brooklyn, murals, sculptures, and stickers on every corner never fail to fascinate tourists and residents alike. Adorning walls and embellishing buildings, street art brings a variety of color and vibrance to the neighborhood. Whether seen as art or vandalism, it is a pivotal part of New York culture.
However, it has not always been this way. Originating underground through the grimy subway tunnels, it took a while for street art to work its way up to street level, eventually escalating as high as buildings and rooftops.
“None of this will ever last,” said Ken Lee, a 40-year-old street art photographer from Brooklyn. Due to the constantly changing world we live in, street art continues to rapidly evolve in synch with the environment and modern society. Different factors both positively and negatively affect the development of street art, making it what it is today.
In the public eye, street art has always received negative connotations, perceived as merely a rebellious act for lower-class misfits. Because it is illegal and offensive to many property owners, it is easy for people to make this generalization. Although these stereotypes may have been true in the past, they no longer apply to every aspect of modern street art.
According to Lee, the negative stereotypes associated with street artists are currently no longer “as strong as you would think.” He claims that all of the street artists he’s met are “wonderful people,” despite the fact that they break the law on a daily basis.
The illegality of street art is actually what brings its allure. Lee describes legal art “like seeing animals in the zoo vs seeing them in the wild.” Illegal art really makes people think about its undercover meaning and what the artist went through to successfully display it. The amount of effort dedicated to a piece shows how important it is to the artist - important enough to risk his or her life.
“The idea of it being illegal is an incentive,” said Raymond Conlon, a street artist from Brooklyn. He claimed that if it was legal, he would not be doing it.
People also commonly associate street art with mostly male figures. Although women have been involved in street art since the beginning, the community has always been dominated by men. Recently, however, street art is “being increasingly taken over by women,” according to David Mason, an art historian.
Lee claims that the recent women’s movement is “like a reckoning,” inspiring women to use their voice to make meaningful contributions to the street art community. “I think it’s cool, I think it’s great,” said Conlon, showing his full support of female participation.
Social media is another factor that has played a major role in popularizing street art, especially among younger generations. With platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, artists have the ability to post pictures of their art for the whole world to see. In a society where everyone’s eyes are regularly glued to their phones, online posts are a great advertisement method to grab people’s attention.
Although Conlon agreed that social media has significantly benefited his career, he admitted there are negative aspects as well. He said that social media “dilutes the quality” of the art, as people will choose to view it online out of convenience rather than experiencing it fully in person. This consequently eliminates the authenticity of the art and sometimes even blurs the message the artist is trying to convey.
Street art also significantly contributes to gentrification, spreading the culture and allowing it to thrive in new places. “Artists tend to be the first to come to a new area,” said Conlon. “(They are) responsible for bringing gentrification in.” Filling streets with vivid images not only brings culture in, but it also helps brighten and “uplift a community.” The artwork plays a role in attracting tourists as well as permanent residents, and the neighborhood quickly fills with life.
Gentrification, however, pushes artists out, ridding the neighborhood of their work and culture. Ion explained that as time progresses and apartment prices rise, artists’ incomes do not increase at the same level. Artists are therefore unable to financially support themselves in a community that has priced them out.
Because of gentrification, artists are constantly moving and bringing their work with them. As they discover new locations, their art conforms to the different environment, affecting their styles as a result.
Conlon claims that he is unhappy with some of his old work because his “style has evolved.” Artists’ designs and techniques change in synch with the surrounding world, allowing fresh new pieces that reflect modern issues to circulate through the streets.
However, artists maintain their identity by preserving a strong voice through their work that is uniquely theirs. Despite changes in style, artwork is often easily recognizable due to the creator’s distinct voice.
Despite the myriad societal changes that have affected street art over the course of time, one aspect has remained the same: the artists’ overall goal.
“Being known for your art,” Conlon said, ““and then being able to use that to do good things.”