Notebook: The preservation and persecution of the ever-changing street art world

By Gillian Jakab, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 27, 2013

Is street art a genre of art history to be preternaturally preserved in museums for millennia or is it more like the sand art of Buddhist monks, matter-of-factly scattered to the next wind in cycles of rebirth? Sistine Chapel or Snapchat?

Banksy, “nom-de-taguer” of the world’s most famous unidentified street artist, amped up the dialogue on the fine art of graffiti with his October “residency” in New York entitled “Better Out Than In.” Banksy’s work, like that of many street artists, challenges the art world’s conventional channels of trade: galleries and museums. On West 24th Street in Manhattan, Banksy “showed” two of his pieces by hanging them with industrial chains from an overpass.

Viewers were guided by velvet ropes between orange traffic cones, and welcomed at a bench created from a plank of wood resting on cinder blocks — Banksy had mocked up a gallery space with street paraphernalia on a public thoroughfare in Chelsea’s haute gallery district.

His NYC work included a stint where a homeless man to sold unidentified pieces of Banksy’s art for laughable fractions of the prices they would fetch in art world sales.

He placed his final mark in Long Island City, Queens — home of 5Pointz, described by its website as “the world’s premiere ‘graffiti Mecca,’ where aerosol artists from around the globe paint colorful pieces on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot factory building.”

5Pointz, whose tag line is “the Institute of Higher Burning,” is across the street from MoMA-PS1, the hip outpost of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

With an art institution in such close proximity, you’d think there’d be more advocates for the preservationist side of the debate.

But the sand art winds were gathering.

For a few years now, the Wolkoff family, which owns the 5Pointz factory building, has been threatening to end the communal, 11-year-old street art space with a plan to build a high-rise residential complex. This did not fly with the 5Pointz community and their supporters. Jonathan Cohen, longtime NYC street artist known as “Meres One,” is the founder and “curator” of 5Pointz. He has led efforts to save the monumental walls of street art and establish it as a dynamic graffiti museum.

His efforts have ranged from filing a lawsuit under the Artists Rights Act to applying to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for landmark status. None of the efforts, however, had been fruitful and 5Pointz remains vulnerable. In Banksy’s conclusion to his NYC residency, he plugged a final plea for the place that unifies so many of his fellow street artists: “And that’s it. Thanks for your patience. It’s been fun. Save 5Pointz. Bye.”

It would not be enough.

In the early hours of Nov. 19, a night when the winds howled at 30 miles per hour, gusting to 40, the owners whitewashed the entire 5Pointz building. A Wolkoff family member said he thought it was the “humane” thing to do; because he appreciated the art, he didn’t want to see it dramatically destroyed during demolition. The protesters-turned-mourners of the site see no kindness in the decision. Examples of their outcry from images posted to the Facebook group “Save 5Pointz” include: “Wolkoff = art murderer” and “you can’t whitewash my city.”

In Ann Arbor, Graffiti Alley on Liberty Street is a communal spot, like 5Pointz was, for local street artists, as well as for musicians and dancers. You probably know the regulars there, or at least the Michael Jackson dancer. Besides being a spot for street performance, or a place to take some cheesy photos, the alley has been home to some world-class street art. Its ever-changing walls strongly invoke the meditative practices of Buddhist monks, who create intricate works of art from grains of sand and then immediately let them blow away.

In 2008, one of the walls was whitewashed, wiping clean the layers of tags and images. The alley was able to take that blow and resile because, even in its normal state, without a whitewasher, street art is ephemeral—work may only live a short time before being covered by another’s tag. What is essential is that there be space for it.

The fleeting character of street art has not deterred the art world from co-opting what was once considered vandalism. Keith Haring’s giant works in New York’s subways or Banksy’s messages are now lauded by the art establishment as masterful artwork, which is not a problem. Graffiti and street art can be appreciated both organically in public spaces and curatorially in museums and galleries.

Upon discovering Banksy’s work, another street artist quickly tagged over his red heart-shaped balloon found in Red Hook, Brooklyn, while the building owner took it upon himself to preserve the work under plexiglass. The only tragedy would be if street art ceased to exist outside the museums and collections. That’s why space is key.

It’s no secret that public art is openly valued in communities. Artists are commissioned to create murals like the one opposite graffiti alley on Liberty street. Government art councils establish public art funds for its sole purpose. But it would be stultifying to allow commissioned artists to monopolize public spaces. Shouldn’t at least some of the public art in communities spring spontaneously from the hands of the public?

Of course, there will and should always be the street artists who push the boundaries of where to display their work. Most of us still want to see rules broken and feel awed by spotting street art at unfathomable heights or on inaccessible spots. But places like 5Pointz and Graffiti Alley point out the benefits of space available for the democratized expression of art.

It doesn’t need to be those exact spaces forever, but there does need to be space and a sufficient period of time to attract art.

How much time? Less than the millennia since Greek and Roman sculpture, but more than the time it takes to scatter sand in the wind.