Up your street: a new perspective on street art?

Posted on: February 19, 2016 by

We tend to think of street art as highly contemporary – edgy, modern and up to the minute in its commentary on the social and political controversies of the day. But what about cave paintings, medieval etchings, scrawls on the walls of the ancient city of Pompeii?

The once-widespread notion that graffiti and street art are synonymous with vandalism and crime no longer holds sway in most circles. Indeed, the appreciation of these forms of expression and their historical significance has expanded from the sub-culture of the artists themselves to the ‘conventional’ art world, and now, even to the highest levels of officialdom.

Historic England (HE) will publish later this year a guidance note about the recording and interpretation of historic graffiti, following a consultation which closed on 5 February. The guidance will draw upon the results of a research study by HE which focusses on a test case – the roof of a church tower in North Yorkshire which was found to display an extensive and well-preserved collection of 17th– to 20th-century graffiti. Over 1400 examples were recorded, providing fascinating insights into cultural, social, military and political history including, for example: literacy trends and the impact of the railways in the 19th century; the development of the ship building industry; changing religious beliefs over time and circumstance.

Discussion of graffiti within academic circles is also increasing. While research into cave paintings and medieval murals is nothing new, it is only over the past few years that ‘serious’ archaeologists have seen fit to embrace a topic once restricted to studies of criminality. In 2014, an article appeared in the archaeological journal Antiquity about the flat in which Jonny Rotten of the Sex Pistols fame had decorated the walls with cartoon pictures of the band – an “important site, historically and archaeologically” say the authors.

And what of our courts, judges and legislative systems – those notorious bastions of tradition and (small ‘c’) conservatism? Are they keeping pace? Or are they continuing to condemn street art out of hand as an illegal act of vandalism and a violation of property rights? The recent ground-breaking judgement in a case involving Banksy’s ‘Art Buff’ mural, refreshingly, suggest the former. The court in this fascinating case held that the mural could not be removed and sold off by tenants and was to be returned to the creative arts foundation bringing the claim.

The questions facing the court in cases like this though, are undeniably tricky: Can the interference with personal property without consent ever fall on the ‘right’ side of the law? Who has rights in graffiti, and how can these be exercised? What about the interplay between rights in the physical property and ownership of intellectual property rights? Once created, can works of street art be ‘protected’ against appropriation (or ‘misappropriation’) by other artists? The story we covered in December 2015 involving British street artist Stik raises interesting issues about moral rights and the extent to which these might provide protection for street artists in some circumstances.

Stik with local artists in front of their collaborative mural in Gdansk in 2011 (c/o Stik)

Stik with local artists in front of their collaborative mural in Gdansk in 2011 (c/o Stik)

It is fair to say that the discussion about contemporary street art – from legal, ethical, social, political and cultural perspectives – is in its infancy. The increased attention it has garnered over recent years is to be welcomed, and we await with interest Historic England’s forthcoming paper on graffiti. This is just the start, however. Thinking caps will need to remain firmly in place for some time to come to address the myriad of issues the topic raises.