Street art – youth counterculture or mainstream art form?
Walls and streets, traffic signs and letter boxes: street art transforms every imaginable object in public places into art. Whether the expression of rebellious youth and the underground culture or the commissioned work of internationally recognised artists, the resulting artworks now leave their mark on cityscapes throughout the world.
Many forms of street art are almost as old as humanity itself – different kinds of wall and street painting, for example. Today, public art has steadily expanded and evolved into an enormous variety of forms and styles, with artists constantly inventing new and stunning, provoking or simply funny artworks for public streets and squares.
Unlike other forms of art, street art is characterised by being for the most part illegal, created by underground or youth countercultures. The element of anarchy – the fact that the artist is deliberately crossing a line and breaking the law – often plays a major role, for example with graffiti or paste-ups made of posters, newspapers or other paper that appear overnight and are painted, sprayed or glued onto walls or objects in public areas. Seizing the liberty to express oneself creatively, publicly and illicitly is part and parcel of this form of artwork and its message as well. 'When I paint on the street instead of in a gallery, that in itself is a political statement,' says artist Jim Avignon.
From the grandfather of street art to the 'world's fastest painter'
Gérard Zlotykamien, the Jewish French painter and sprayer, is recognised as the grandfather of street art. Born in 1940, he was one of the first artists to start executing his works on walls in public places in the 1960s. He called his now famous black stick figures Les Éphémères, 'the ephemerals', intended as a reminder of the victims of persecution and the ghettos of the Holocaust. Zlotykamien can be considered a pioneer of public art. In some places his stick figures were considered to just be scrawls and were erased, while others were shown at major international art festivals. Today, street art continues to move between the counterculture and the established art market, and this is no doubt what keeps it so vibrant. At the same time, a growing number of initiatives and projects deliberately seek to bring street artists from all over the world together so they can work together at a high professional level.
Street art in Central America: De mi barrio a tu barrio
In early 2012, the Goethe-Institut in Mexico commissioned the famous German musician, action artist and self-styled 'world's fastest painter' Jim Avignon with a large-scale international project. For the street art tour De mi barrio a tu barrio (‘From my quarter to your quarter’)/Urban Heartbeat, Avignon spent five weeks travelling through Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, joining local artists in each country to paint giant murals.
The resulting walls now unite the works of the 70 street artists who responded to the Goethe-Institut’s invitation. They were people of the most diverse geographic and creative roots. Gigantic graffiti are seen alongside political stencils or socially critical frescoes that recall the Mexican muralismo of the 1920s. In an interview, Jim Avignon said that De mi barrio a tu barrio was designed to start a dialogue among artists who otherwise work mostly alone in public spaces, often illegally and without pay – not to mention any artistic recognition. The extensive reports on Urban Heartbeat bear witness to the project's remarkable success:
Street Art - with Jim Avignon through Latin America (in German only)
Activities within the online community