You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone: A Plea for the Proper Documentation of Street Art

Posted: December 29, 2010 in Graffiti, Murals and Wall Paintings, Personal Anecdotes, Street Art
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One of my most memorable experiences with public art was a mural, a regular fixture on my bus route throughout my middle school years. It depicted a pleasant rural spring scene with plenty of cherry blossom trees on two sides of a deli shop on the corner of busy intersection in Bayside, Queens. Passing by a few years later, a different mural depicting a slightly abstracted Asianic nighttime landscape had been painted on the wall. Now, nearly a decade after I first passed the shop, the only reminder of the murals are visible on two adjacent wall facing the parking lot and is partially obscured by dumpsters. Side by side, one slightly more outcropped than the other, one wall projects the nighttime landscape and the other depicts the spring landscape. Although these two scenes might seem strangely juxtaposed, because I’ve witnessed both incarnations of the wall space, these side-by-side designs make sense to me. The larger main wall on which the murals had been painted has been covered with an ugly thick coat of brick-red paint. Some areas have been torn out, as if someone was looking for some reminder of the murals underneath. Even today, whenever I pass by the wall that had twice been so beautifully covered, I wince at the mass of brick-red paint, and suppress an urge to jump off the bus and tear off the paint. Instead, I ride on by and fondly remember how I enjoyed looking at the serene cherry blossom landscape on my way to school in the morning.

I mean this anecdote to highlight how, like public art, street art is not only an ephemeral process, but one that affects us more deeply than we can immediately understand. I had once read a comment on a BBC article that because of the presence of street art on his block, one person didn’t “feel lonely” walking down the dark streets of Brooklyn. You know, I had never really thought of it consciously before, but before a space is inhabited, we tend to tune it out. Then, someone comes along and sees this blank space as the perfect canvas on which of life can be created. Suddenly, an otherwise dilapidated space becomes a significant marker in the visual landscape.

Street art, by its very nature, changes the landscape so drastically that the wall on which it resides becomes something of a landmark. If you’ve ever passed by a piece everyday, whether it’s a sticker, a cool piece of graffiti, or a mural, and suddenly it disappears, you’ll notice that when it’s gone, and you’ll actually miss it a bit. Once we’ve been exposed to street art, we become acutely aware of the visual landscape and the changes to it around us. And when we lack this level of creative visual stimulation, we’ll start to think about the emptiness around us and miss it a bit.

However, aside from affecting our understanding of the visual landscape, another equally important aspect of street art is its transient nature. As with all life, but especially with street art, the piece will progress through its natural life cycle and eventually fade out of existence. Like the cycle of life, the street art cycle of being put up (birth), being weathered (aging), and being covered (death) is an intrinsic part of its being, and arguably, the very thing that gives it value. Street art is a unique type of living art that provokes a response, whether it’s for someone to tag over it, tear it down, or wash it out. If it were to remain sedentary, then I would argue that it hasn’t done its job, as it would the just be incorporated into the visual landscape rather than making us reevaluate our surroundings.

Street artists more than anyone understand this process of letting their creations go into the will of the world. However, I must admit that as an aficionado, an academic, and a conservator, it’s much harder for me to simply let go of such things. Have you ever wondered about the history of a wall? What’s under the paint? How far does it go? How long a piece lasted? Whether it was taken out by time, another tagger, or the authorities?

Graffiti Archaeology is an online project devoted to the study of graffiti-covered walls as they’ve change over time. The photos were taken of particularly graffiti-prone walls in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and other cities, over the course of a decade from about 1998 to 2008 by several different photographers and artists. Using stitching programs, computer programmer (and in a sense, curator) Cassidy Curtis uses time-lapse collages to create a truly interactive approach to experiencing the life of the spaces that serve as reusable canvasses themselves. Having studied archaeology at university, I wouldn’t exactly call it that, but I would say that it’s definitely interesting, and is one of the most unique projects I’ve seen formally and cohesively documenting and visually recounting the ephemeral nature of street art over any span of time with consistent locations. The only drawback is that the pictures are sporadically taken, with as few as five or as many as 61 layers available per wall with the intermittant time between pictures being as little as a few days or as long as a few years apart.

As someone who’s been trained in conservation, and has worked in the fields of archival preservation, registration, and conservation, it’s been ingrained into every fiber of my being for a number of years to always take pictures of the collections that I work with and the alterations that I make when I conserve a work. Not only is photodocumentation an important resource to track artists, styles, and the life of the piece itself, but it is also the important first step in the legitimization of street art. However, for photodocumentation to be an effective tool in street art, it must be standardized in both practice and archiving.

Websites like Flikr have allowed street art and graffiti aficionados to post their pictures and find others who have taken pictures of the same place or artist via tags. Don’t get me wrong, a good piece is good to look at no matter what, and a picture is definitely worth a thousand words, but sometimes it’s important to know who did what, where, and when. Unfortunately, unlabelled or mislabeled pictures, or pictures without dates or locations are nearly as useless as never having documented the place at all. Also, a lack of consolidation on the internet makes piecing together the entire story of a wall or the development of an artist nearly impossible. Especially when I spend hours researching spaces and artists, it can seem that everyone has a piece of the story and it’s up to whoever’s interested enough to figure it out by themselves.

Now I’m not the type of person to carry around a camera. This isn’t only because my camera is a total brick (at 7 years old, it only has a shameful 3.2 MP, which is less than a lot of cell phone cameras boast these days), but probably stems from my extreme dislike of appearing touristy. However, I am regretting more and more that I never have a camera handy with me even as I go about my business in New York City. Small things will pop out at me and I’ll wish that I had a camera to photograph it and post it somewhere it can all be seen and appreciated. Then I’ll go back, but it will already be gone or some thoughtless toy tagger will have ruined it forever. And then years later, when relating an anecdotal story like the one above, I won’t have a picture to go along with it. Well let that be a lesson to me. And you.

This holiday season I know you’ve probably been inundated with appeals of various sorts. Mine is simple: let’s record street art and legitimize it as a form of expression together by taking as many pictures as we can and taking the time to label and date those pictures that we do take (with as precise a location as possible, the date the picture was taken, and if you post the picture online, with the name of the artist/tagger/crew or any words you can decipher from the piece). And I will start my holiday appeal with a New Years’ resolution for myself to be the change I wish to see and start photodocumenting with more determination. So, if you ever see a girl with one of the largest digital cameras you’ve ever seen stopping to take a picture of something random, well, that would be me. Say hi, will you?

Wishing you a happy New Year! See you in 2011!

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