Not all street art is intended to challenge cultural, political and economic hegemonies. Yet much of it still manages to do so. This is reassuring because street art has grown from an underground movement engaged in popular protest against paid-for corporate advertising into a commercially viable tool for corporate branding. Street art is also increasingly sought after in the artworld—a world previously uninterested in endowing it with legitimacy—where the symbolic capital imbued within it transfers to greater demand, more prestige, and bigger price tags for works.

Shepard Fairey + Clear Channel. Photo by Hargo. source: http://theworldsbestever.com/2009/02/18/shepard-fairey-x-clear-channel

Because of its multiple functions, as protest/commentary, as strategic branding, and as item of exchange within the art market, can we still speak of the genre as a subversive art form? Does it retain its capacity for social and political commentary and activism? Throughout its trajectory, have the initial principles underlying street art been replaced, forgotten, overrun, painted over? This essay seeks to assess the current state of street art in order to attempt an answer to the questions posed by examining the work of several artists operating within the field.

My claim is that street artists do not necessarily loose their capacity for social commentary when they operate in the commercial and/or artworld spheres. While playing these different roles, some of these artists are still able to engage in social commentary, by ‘making do’ within a “controlled, hyper-commercialized” urban environment. (Douglass, 7) I will begin by outlining, briefly, a definition of street art. I will then provide a general theoretical overview of its main themes, concepts and the common materials and techniques used. Then I will use examples of contemporary street artists to show the different functions that this art form can have.

street art: a (very) brief overview

"... [street art] is a resistance against the notion that only paid-for corporate advertising can take hold in our visual commons … [it] appears along side sanctioned billboards, sometimes replacing them ... [it is] a knowing nod, to those who notice."
(Pitchya Sudbanthad, "Roundtable: Street Art")

Street art is a broad and loosely knit term. It can include graffiti, muralists, wheat pasters, installationalists, and stencil artists. It is ephemeral and incorporates itself into the fabric of the city. Irvine writes that street art works best when viewed as a practice “that subsumes many forms of visual culture and postmodern art movements, but played out in conflicting ways across the visibility regimes and constitutive spaces of the city and art institutions.” (22) It is a “community of practice with its own learned codes, rules, hierarchies of prestige, and means of communication.” (1) It is a prime example of culture jamming because of its hybrid nature, its remix approach and its embeddedness within a networked, digitally global culture. It occurs in two broad stages: the act of doing at the local level, and act of documenting for broad dissemination. Street art is the first truly post-Internet art movement. This has enabled it to exist at the local level—in the act of doing—as well as the global level, in the act of capturing and disseminating. (8)

Ron English, NYC 1991. Commercial advertising strategies are a powerful medium of communication, and street art that takes on characteristics of the advertising medium itself can claim similar amounts of public attention. Acquired from www.graffiti.org/ron_english/billboard.html

Street art emerges from a rich heritage of punk and hip-hop, dada and futurism and is rooted in active rebellion against the commerciality and hegemony of late modern society (Irvine). Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who burst forth onto the New York art scene in the early 1980s, paved the way for a post-postmodern approach to art that defines the genre today. Other influences include Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg and Hamilton. Guy Debord, Futurism, Surrealism, Rauschenberg, Neo-Expressionism, and “happenings" number its many other influences.

One of the defining characteristics of street art is its tendency to challenge spatial hegemonies by becoming a competitor in the contest for visible public space. (2) Where advertising tends to be “predatory” in its codes, Street art can function to redirect focus and thought in the current “attention economy”. Fear of the socialization of members of society through constant exposure of advertising in public space has led many street artists to undertake an explicit subversion of advertising space. (19) In the place of commercial advertising, these artists place other messages, codes and knowledge.

Banksey. From Banksey's website, www.banksey.co.uk

Artists such as Swoon and Dan Witz have spoken about the tension between continuing to honor the tradition of street art and being able to provide for themselves and theit families. (“Roundtable: Street Art”). On the one hand the commodification of style, aesthetics, and independent spirit is inevitable and distressing; on the other, with increased commercialization has come increased awareness of the art form and its message, a larger audience of participants as well as financial opportunities for (some) artists. For example, street artists might sell their expertise to companies licensing wall space from local municipalities in public, mostly urban spaces to marketing firms whose clients wish to associate themselves with street art’s symbolic capital.

"I am Pabst" by Jacob White. Winner of an art contest run by american beer brand Pabst Blue Ribbon. Image from http://heavytable.com/i-am-pabst-and-i-fight-giant-squid/

Before proceeding, it is necessary to explain symbolic capital and its relation to street art. Symbolic capital is a species of capital within a field of interlocking webs of capital. It is a form of power that functions authoritatively and allows those who possess it to accomplish objectives unavailable to others. It is capital perceived to be legitimate because of the codes learned through socialization. Street art and artists can gain symbolic capital in the form of recognition, honor, “aura”, prestige, fame, reputation, and attention when they cash in on their outsider status. In this way it can act as a form of credit to be capitalized upon and leveraged for critical or commercial success. Similarly, it is possible to use these “credits” for social activism in the sense of calling upon relations and social connections accrued with symbolic capital.

Street art can also be used as to challenge visibility regimes as expression of cultural identity, as politics of identity and recognition. These works can offer representations of marginalized and disenfranchised identities. Commercial advertising strategies are a powerful medium of communication, and street art that takes on characteristics of the advertising medium itself can claim similar amounts of public attention.

Princess Hijab is known for his/her painting hijab and burqa on upscale fashion advertisements on the Paris subway.

The work of BR1, whose subject matter includes representations of Muslim women. (see below for more on BR1)

STreet artists: reclaiming the streets?

“Can the logic capitalism really co-opt the very nature of resistance, or will resistance just take on new forms moving forward?” (Nathan Jurgenson, “culture de-jamming”)

Street art functions as a form of societal critique, protest, commentary, and democratic engagement. But does capitalism inevitably appropriate, re-purpose and spit out every effort to critique its structures? Some argue that street art meant to be anti-capitalistic has been appropriated by corporations “jamming the culture jammers” by using their strategies. (Nathan Jurgenson, “culture de-jamming”) The following is a presentation of a number of artists who continue to engage in social commentary.

Banksey is on of the most well known of all street artists. His work tackles themes such as exploitation, power relations, disenchantment, alienation, authority, anti-war, authoritarianism, anti-fascism, and absurdity. He uses stencil work to create imagery that appears effortless and has clear messaging.

Banksey. From Banksey's website, www.banksey.co.uk

Banksey. From Banksey's website, www.banksey.co.uk

Banksey. From Banksey's website, www.banksey.co.uk

Banksey. From the West Bank Barrier Series. Image from Banksey's website, www.banksey.co.uk

JR said at his recent TED talk that "art can be a neutral space for exchanges and discussions.” His work “catches the attention of people who are not visitors” and “mixes Art and Act, talks about commitment, freedom, identity, and limit.” (www.jr-art.net) For example, during the Paris riots of November 2005, JR took a 28mm lens to the neighborhoods where many of the perpetrators were thought to have come from. He asked the people there to make scary faces, caricatures of themselves. Using paper and glue, JR posted these pictures around Paris with the names, addresses and other personal information of the people in the photos. Eventually this series was displayed in front of the City Hall of Paris. The series is called Portrait of a Generation.

from the project Portrait of a Generation. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net

from the project Portrait of a Generation. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net

from the project Portrait of a Generation. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net

In 2006 JR began a project to address the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He took portraits of Palestinians and Israeli’s, both with the same jobs, and put them beside one another. These images were posted in eight Israeli and Palestinian cities, on both sides of the wall. Titles Face2Face, it was the biggest illegal art project ever

Face2Face. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net

Face2Face. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net

Face2Face. Image from JR's website: www.jr-art.net


“My message is: pointing out that Muslim women have the same needs and necessities of the majority of Western women. Certainly, the only exception is the veil.” (“The Art of BR1 in Turin, Italy”, www.woostercollective.com)

BR1’s work deals with the representation of Muslim women and their social condition. His main message is that Muslim women are the same as Western women. He represents Muslim women in daily life situations. He believes it is crucial to conceive street art as a tool to spread social messages. "Why Muslim women wouldn’t be the same? I would like to create a network of artists of all nations, about this subject, eventually to compare the different viewpoints."
(“The Art of BR1 in Turin, Italy”, www.woostercollective.com)

from http://www.thestreetartblog.net/2011/02/br1-muslim-women-project.html

from http://www.thestreetartblog.net/2011/02/br1-muslim-women-project.html

Princess Hijab
Princess Hijab’s work points to the condition of otherness. S/he is best known for her work with upscale fashion advertisements in the Paris subway. Although s/he claims to be apolitical, his/her work elicits discussion about France’s secularism laws, specifically the debate surrounding the banning of the hijab and burqa in public schools. The work speaks to contested identities within the public sphere and questions the decision made by the state to ban the wearing of religious signifiers in the public sphere.

Princess Hijab. From http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/nov/11/princess-hijab-paris-graffiti-artist

Princess Hijab. From http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/nov/11/princess-hijab-paris-graffiti-artist

concluding remarks

Despite its appropriation into the world of private marketing, street art continues to produce works that function as social commentary. The works shown above are indications that its initial principles of social commentary remain in tact.


Pitchya Sudbanthad, "Roundtable: Street Art," The Morning news, 2005, www.themorningnews.org/archives/personalities/roundtable_street_art.php.

"Paris Street Artist, Photographer Jr Creates Global Public Art of Soulful, Human Scale", Cool Global BIZ, March 2, 2011, http://www.coolglobalbiz.com/cultural-identity/.

Bill Lasarow, "JR's Wholesome Illegalities", The Huffington Post, December 3, 2010,

Benke Carlsson (2011), Street Art Cookbook: A Guide To Techniques And Materials, Dokument Press.

Gordon C.C. Douglas, "The Art of Spatial Resistance: The Global Urban Network of Street Art," University of Chicago (2006).

Steven K. White (2000), Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Thought, Princeton University Press.

John F. Kennedy School of Government, Bettertogether: the Arts and Social Capital, (Harvard University).

Klang, “Street art and social commentary”, Sound & Fury, April 7, 2009,

“Putting on the Veil”, Good Design, November 24, 2009,

Bourdieu, P. and Loïc J. D. Wacquant (1992), An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

Christina Schmid, “Art’s Outsides: A Reflection in Six Parts”, Quodlibetica: Writing. Arts. Criticism, February 1, 2011,

Martin Irvine (2011), “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture”, to appear in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Haywood, Berg/Palgrave Macmillan.

Mark C. Taylor (2002), The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture, University of Chicago Press.

Nathan Jurgenson, “Culture De-Jamming”, The Society Pages: Social Science That Matters, Aug 24, 2009, http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/tag/street-art/.

Pierre Bourdieu (1987), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Harvard University Press.

“Legal Graffiti: Ads or Icons, Consumers Wonder”, Media Buyer Planner, August 23, 2005, http://www.mediabuyerplanner.com/entry/39550/legal-graffiti-ads-or-icons/.

Alexandra Sandels, “TUNISIA: Torched Police Station that Symbolized Repression Turned into Street Art”, Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2011/03/tunisia-police-station-symbol-oppression-torture-art-photos-ben-ali-uprising.html


Wooster Collective: www.woostercollective.com

Urban Prankster: www.urbanprankster.com

Public Ad Campaign: www.publicadcampaign.com

Alt Terrain: www.altterrain.com

Anti Advertising Agency: www.antiadvertisingagency.com

Unurth: www.unurth.com

JR’s website: www.jr-art.net/

Wikipedia: www.wikipedia.com

The Brooklyn Museum: www.brooklynmuseum.org

Gordon Douglas’s webpage: http://home.uchicago.edu/~gdouglas/about