Writing On The Walls - Street Art As A Form Of Expression

Photo of grey building wall with word "Konstytucja" and emphasized syllables TY and JA.
Proposal of a mural in Poznań, Piotr Kunowski/Facebook

Slogans of protests, commenting and supporting current political and social movements are the precursors to modern graffiti and street art. As we could recently see in Poland, during anti-abortion protests that shook up Polish cities, this aspect of the genre still continues and serves as the most important form of expression for the citizens.

Street art has been widely used through times to raise awareness, to express emotions, objections and show the truth that due to political reasons was being covered. It has also evolved from graffiti and vandalism to new forms where artists through their art made personal statements, showed their message or just the beauty of the surrounding world.

Difference between graffiti and street art

Those two are very often used as synonyms, however they differ quite importantly. Street art is usually painted with permission or is commissioned by a gallery, a museum or a private company. It is also more image-based. Street art is often defined as a public space artwork that is created outside of traditional gallery settings and is more accessible to the public, which gives it more viewers. The definition of street art is very broad, but the most popular examples of it are large scale murals on the walls or sides of the buildings.

Mural painting of two person kissing through face masks.
Pony Wave, Venice, California, 2020. Argonautnews.

Graffiti, on the other hand, is by some considered to be vandalism and by some, art. The definition of graffiti refers to words, initials or drawings which are sprayed or scratched on the walls or pavements of public areas. It raises more controversies than street art as very often it is illegal and seen by the police or property owners as crime.

Green graffiti made of words.
Mike Burchfield, The Warehouse, Bloomington. Indiana public media.

History behind street art

The first drawings on the walls appeared in caves thousands of years ago. Lascaux cave is covered with over 600 prehistoric wall paintings depicting animals, local fauna, human figures and abstract art. The Lascaux painters applied pigments of mineral origin - they used the things around them, especially minerals and rocks. Pigments were held in shells and grinded up with stones. For the paint brushes the artists made use of thin bones of wolves.

The bull painted on the wall inside the Lascaux cave.
Lascaux cave, a close-up of one of the paintings. Flowsa.

In ancient times Greeks and Romans wrote their names and protest poems on buildings. Not only were the ancient graffiti signs connected to politics. The inscriptions covered various topics - from poems to greetings, which were often spontaneous messages. Thanks to those we have an insight into the social life of ancient citizens and all this serves as a documentation of their every day existence. Ancient artists scratched or engraved their writings into the surface. Sometimes the inscriptions were painted on the walls.

Contemporary street art was very much influenced by hip hop culture dating back to the 1960s and 70s. Neighbourhoods of New York or Philadelphia were the melting-pot of street subcultures and the graffiti boom was also catalyzed by the invention of aerosol spray can. Early graffiti artists were called “writers” or “taggers”. It is hard to identify the first taggers - some point to New York where Julio 204 or Taki 183 were one of the most popular, some want to see Philadelphia as the precursor with the tagger called Corn Bread.

Graffiti on the wall made of pink words "Happy Holiday".
1970s NYC Subway Graffiti. Alphabet city blog.

Graffiti art soon started appearing on all of the surfaces in the city, but the one mostly loved were the subway cars. They travelled long distances and made it possible for the artists to be seen by wider audiences. These were mostly tags of names but “taggers” found creative ways to stand out and soon new calligraphic graffiti styles were born. This is how contemporary graffiti art was developing its way through history completely apart from formalized traditional art forms and institutions.

Modern street art artists

When it comes to street art the most recognizable modern artist is, with no doubt, Banksy. His legendary reputation has been constantly growing since 2010 when he released his intriguing film Exit Through The Gift Shop. His works concentrate on social issues and recently focus on the world crisis.

Mural with young girl and red ballon.
Banksy, Girl with a baloon, South Bank, London, 2002. Wikipedia.

Another amazing artist is, born in Portugal, Vhils. He uses tools like drills and chisels and literally scratches off the surfaces of the buildings to create his stunning art pieces. His international success has risen up when U2 invited him as one of 11 artists to create music videos for their album Films of Innocence.

Vhils, Jose Alfonso, Seixal, Portugal. Pinterest. Wikipedia.

Hyuro was an Argentinian born artist that worked in Valencia, Spain. Her works are socially engaged and show faceless women as a protest against gender biased violence and deaths due to abortion. Unfortunately, the artist died last year of leukaemia, aged 46. Her huge murals appear in many countries.

Hyuro. Hyuro.es.

Street art in Poland

Street art in Poland has been growing rapidly and Polish artists are definitely world-class. Poland hosts many street art festivals in major cities and art enters the world of galleries and also business when companies use this means of expression to promote their values.

Mariusz Waras (M-city) is a well-known Polish artist, recognized mostly for his M-city project, i.e large scale murals on the walls of buildings in urban spaces. The main theme of his work is urban landscape. M-City is a black and white vision of agglomerations with extremely dense buildings and modular, anonymous, alike houses resembling children’s blocks to play.

Mariusz Waras, M-city, Gdynia, Poland. Vice.

Przemysław PRAKTIS Sieńko - young artist and musician. His work is characterized by combining many threads of contemporary art and culture, which results in original works that are a mixture of abstractionism, futurism, comics and realism.

Natalia Rak uses bright colors and a realistic style to create her murals depicting mostly women or being an image of classical stories like Adam and Eve or Romeo and Juliet. She also helps to recreate unused spaces into art exhibitions.

Natalia Rak, Legenda o Wielkoludach, Białystok, Poland. Street Art News.

In Warsaw there is also a place where street art and graffiti mingle and show its power in the best form. It is located in the backyard of 11 Listopada Street. For years that space has given artists an opportunity to express their own point of view on the reality that surrounds us. Since 2019 the place has become even more lively as this place is mostly people - people who share their art, support, ideas, resources. You can find there such clubs as Hydrozagadka, Chmury or Skład Butelek which are a must see in Praga district in Warsaw.

11 Listopada Street, Warsaw, Poland. Warszawskie mozaiki.

Street art and technology

In the times of high tech development, street art and murals have been merged with technology. Mixing murals with augmented reality to extend visual experiences or inventing spray paint robots that can create large scale works on nearly every surface - these are just some of the new trends in the art tech world.

Robot Muralist is a robot that makes it easy to create large murals on all kinds of surfaces invented by an Estonian startup. One robot is capable of printing 15 murals a month. The company has also launched the Sprayprinter - a handheld device which pairs with a user’s smartphone to properly eject paint as it moves around a canvas or a wall. These two products automate the graffiti process.

Robot muralist. Sifted.

Another interesting company is Beautify - beautification technology platform that connects property owners, businesses, galleries with artists. It helps you to describe your vision and needs and then find a perfect artist for your mural. The startup handles the contracting, payments and confirmations which makes the whole process much easier for the companies that want to use this form of expression in advertising or socially engaged projects.

We can expect that in the future, the lines between technology and art will be thinner and thinner.

Antonina Czarnecka

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