In the past 20 years or so, an enormous surge of interest in the unlawful decoration of urban landscapes has changed how people perceive the notion of a “public” art form. What was once labeled “graffiti” or “vandalism,” attributed to thugs, degenerates, and juvenile delinquents is now street art. Although still on the margins of legality, street artists have slowly entered into the mainstream. For anyone who remembers the astounding success of Banksy’s “Barely Legal” exhibition in a Los Angeles warehouse in 2006, it should be obvious just how much the nature of graffiti, street art, and even public art have changed over the years.
Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art makes a bold attempt to trace the history of the graffiti and street art movements, strategically tossing out chronology in favor of a thematic history. The themes themselves often overlap and cut into each other, with a single street artist’s work dispersed into multiple categories. Take, for example, the chapter “Public Memory/Private Secrets,” which presents street art as a cooperative public art form in the face of exaggerated individualism. Art and pop culture critic Carlo McCormick stresses the collaborative aspect of street art , an undertaking that replaces the cutthroat competition of the gallery with a partnership of artists looking out for one another. These artists all form a community with a common history. On the other side of memory is street art as memorial—the most obvious example being the Ghost Bike Movement, in which bicycles are painted white and locked up at intersections where bicyclists have been killed or seriously injured. From Berlin to Seattle, the sheer size of this memorial movement in the form of street art/sculpture/public installation is astounding. (If I stick my head out my office window, I can see one on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and S Street.) And this is only one example.
Although a bit overly optimistic at times, McCormick’s descriptions of the various themes in graffiti and street art are quite inspiring. But those who most deserve praise for the success of Trespass are Wooster Collective founders Marc and Sara Schiller. (Founded in 2001, the Wooster Collective is a Web site dedicated to the global street art movement, woostercollective.com.) The Schillers not only curated the images, but also interviewed a large percentage of the featured artists, incorporating “artist notes” with many of the descriptions and captions, so that artists recount stories, describe their own work, or simply make comments. Texts by Banksy, Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak, and civil rights lawyer (and brother of Richard Serra) J. Tony Serra further add to the breadth of the study of graffiti and street art. Trespass is a great collection of graffiti and street art from the past 50-odd years, ranging from performances to installations, to stencils and beyond. It truly encompasses the range of previously outcast works that have slowly crept into the domain of public art.
Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art
Edited by Ethel Seno
by Carlo McCormick, in collaboration
with Wooster Collective’s Marc and Sara Schiller
Los Angeles: Taschen, 2010
320 pages, $39.99