Essays

Who Is The Artist? Thoughts on Anonymous Street Art

by Emily Colucci on August 29, 2011

An anonymous street art work in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (image via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

Evacuated from my Lower Manhattan apartment and hiding from Hurricane Irene, I find myself thinking about anonymous street art and what it means to art-viewing practices. Different from traditional art and even graffiti, the anonymous works that are found on construction walls, corners of the street and shop grates pose a difficult yet exciting problem for the street art or historian enthusiast that comes across them.

Often hilarious, poignant or just plain bad, these anonymous street art works — whether wheat-pasted, spray-painted, hand-painted or a combination of all three — may project a purity of artistic expression, singularly representing art for art’s sake.  On the other hand, they may lack a point whatsoever.

In thinking about the impact of anonymous street art, I have a lot of varied and maybe even contradictory thoughts, which may come out as a jumbled mess.  Like anonymous street art itself, no conclusion can truly be made or question answered.  Rather thoughts just pop in your head as you wander down a street and come across a beautiful piece of art near some bags of garbage.

First, what exactly is anonymous street art? I’m still trying to wrestle with the exact definition. When I google “anonymous street art,” I get articles on Banksy. Is Banksy really anonymous? Nobody knows his (assuming it’s one person) real identity yet, he’s become enough of a celebrity that many argue that his work, which was first created illegally, should be protected or preserved. Clearly, Banksy is not anonymous in the sense we are talking about. The style of his art seems to be his identity and his signature.  Many street artists have followed this same route. Both Keith Haring’s subway drawings to Shepard Fairey’s OBEY were anonymous until they were discovered.

So the question remains, at what point does a street artist stop being anonymous? Is all street art anonymous until it becomes more popular? It seems impossible to truly define what is anonymous street art.

But maybe that’s not the point.

An anonymous street art work in Brooklyn with a graffiti appendage added on. (image via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

When coming across an anonymous piece of street art, I always get a certain surge of excitement, finding something new that I don’t have any proof anyone else has seen. Without the artist’s identity, the work seems mysterious as if it just appeared there by itself.  As a frequent museum and art gallery goer where the work is so connected to identity, viewing anonymous street art is an almost freeing experience.

As an art history student, I was taught to memorize the artist’s name, title of the work and date. For art history, the identity of the artist is integral to understanding the work and how the artist’s work progresses over their life or in relation to the different art historical movements.

I was never really sure why all of those facts mattered to art-viewing anyway. Did I really know more about art because I could spout “Salvador Dali, ‘The Persistence of Memory’  (1931)” on an exam, only to forget it the moment I walked out of class. I couldn’t even count the amount of hours I’ve had to spend memorizing pointless facts about art when in reality, the most important part of art is looking at the work.

One of the reasons that anonymous street art appeals to me is the backlash against the art historical viewing process. Spending enough time in art history programs, I know that many indoctrinated art history students would have a tough time processing these anonymous street works. Barring the fact that street art is still widely ignored by universities, the anonymity of the artist would surely baffle both the professors and the students.

Imagine if all of art history was taught without the identity of the artist. Suddenly, all of art would be open to wider interpretations without being stuck in a meaningless cycle of artistic movements and personalities. Anonymous street art radically poses the question of how much an artist’s identity really matters to art-viewing.

Besides the mostly conservative art history field, anonymous street art also makes a huge break with graffiti culture, where the name is everything. From the earliest graffiti in New York during the 1970s, with the multitude of tags such as TAKI 183, graffiti has been about asserting the writer’s identity. On the trains during the 1970s and 1980s, the graffiti writers were concerned with propelling their graffiti names, pseudonyms chosen sometimes only for their aesthetic detail, all-around-town. Whether you can easily read the wild-style lettering, you can always identify the graffiti writer since his name is literally the artwork.

Separate from both legal art and graffiti, anonymous street art sets up a complex relationship with the viewer who wants to both appreciate the work and find out who the artist is. But in the end, does it matter if the artist’s name is known? What do we get from a name? There are those who may obsessively try to figure out who did the work and where they come from. For me, I could care less. When I come across a piece of street art that inspires me, I look at it, smile, maybe take a picture and walk on.

Perhaps this is a freer form of art-viewing than the highly structured, audiotape guide-tailored museum visit. In the streets looking at a piece of art, I have no idea where the artist came from, his or her relation to other artists or their monetary value. I only look at the work, which even though it often gets lost in the business and social status of the art world, is the most important part.

While I’m not saying anonymous street art is better than art where the artist’s identity is known. Some of this anonymous street art can seem pointless, but it does set up an important relationship with the viewer that throws normalized art-viewing into question. And shouldn’t that be the goal of art, particularly contemporary art, anyway?

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  • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

    “Street artists” must hide out of cowardice and shame.  Wanting to delude themselves of the fact that their gestures destroy the property of hard-working people “street artists” remain anonymous fearing reality.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think you are seeing street artists (and I’m assuming graffiti writers) as a monolith, perhaps you should get to know some or read more about the topic and realize that they are more diverse than you realize and each does their art for their own reasons.

      • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

        “Street artists” are sometimes very talented but public and private property must be respected.

        A family-owned Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood spent a lot of money renovating their business a couple of months ago.  In the bathroom they had put up a sign asking customers to please respect their establishment by refraining from writing graffiti on the walls.  Soon enough sundry scribbles defaced everything.  

        Artists should ask the owners of sites if they can create artwork there.  This would lead to artists having the time to execute more ambitious projects.  

        I’m all for diverse public artworks but I have no romantic delusions about vandalism.

        • Anonymous

          There’s a chasm between some thugs’ crummy bathroom scribbles and the kind of street art under discussion here. Urban spaces are brimming with abandoned and dilapidated eyesores, faceless infrastructure, and anonymous, non-interactive concrete monolith-offices. They disrupt the public space and cultivate dread and alienation in passersby.

          It may be lipstick on a pig, but street-art gives me hope that individuals can interfere with the domination of nightmarish death-architecture. A paste-up in an overpass isn’t going to dash some hardworking family’s small business aspirations, and conjuring the phantom of class to prevail upon our liberal guilt misses the bigger picture. It’s terrible when mediocre graffitos mess up people’s livelihoods, but it can be wonderful when an artist transforms an ugly, blank wall into something beautiful.

          • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

            The word “respect” is unusable from your standpoint of debate.

            What I argue for is cooperative public art projects which could actually bring the best out of “street artists.”  What you argue for unfortunately is creative license to deface anything.

            “Street artists” operate anonymously because laws aside to confront the owners of the property they destroyed would make them owe up to their deeds and of course they can’t do that out of cowardice and shame badass posturing notwithstanding.

            All “street art” influences younger generations to do similarly and the basic manifestation of this is always egregious vandalism.

          • http://twitter.com/QUELBEAST QUEL BEAST

            dude i wondered why you’d rather look at a clean bathroom wall and then i saw your art

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Come on, play nice.

          • http://twitter.com/QUELBEAST QUEL BEAST

            but wait, i feel like ranting:
            paint lines that can be covered with more paint is not destroying property.  arson destroys property,  paint poorly decorates it.and street artists don’t hide out of “cowardice and shame”, you judgmental prick, people are anonymous so the law has a harder time building a case against any one individual for a multitude of acts over the years.every street artist is proud of themselves and each other on some level for having the courage to get locked up for something they believe in.  you would cry and shit your pants if you spent a night in central booking, so don’t call me a coward.

            but the worst of all your offenses you wrote on your blog: “Bad boy image aside creatively William Powhida’s talents are endless and his moxie refreshing.”

            hahaha

          • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

            I don’t think that people should spray paint other people’s stuff simply because they want to which is pretty self-evident.

            Why is graffiti and “street art” illegal QUEL BEAST?

            Also your name-calling belies a lack of substantial argument on your part FYI–

        • Anonymous

          that does suck when it happens to small businesses. but banning street art doesn’t really have as much to do with bathroom scribbles as you imply. FTR, i do not consider tags in a bathroom or someone writing “call so and so for a good time” to be street “art”…but it is a symptom of a society frustrated with it’s lack of ability to “make a mark” on anything. don’t get me wrong, i would rather see artists only creating in old dilapidated spaces (or on corporate structures if they are ballsy and are seriously trying to make a point). but policing everything is not the answer, nor does it work.

          my personal experiences with human behavior makes me think that putting up a sign saying not to do something will usually just backfire and invite it. in fact, if street art wasn’t illegal, i have to wonder what it would be like. would there still be crappy tags everywhere, or would that fad die out since there wasn’t something to rebel against anymore?

          • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

            Why is graffiti and “street art” against the law humanatee?

            Us discussing this issue via the worldwide web obliterates any notion that people are unable to make a mark on anything wouldn’t you say so?

          • Anonymous

            whether or not it is against the law is a moot point, JD. perhaps you are unaware of the multitude of unjust laws that are in place in this country and many others around the world. i would say that our online discussion shows we can make a (somewhat small and often insignificant) mark on things for now, but if you pay attention, politicians and legislators are constantly trying to pass laws to restrict that freedom as well. so, no, i do not think it obliterates that notion at all (although the internet is certainly a step in the right direction).

            granted, no one will ever find TRUE liberation through societal means, however, that does not mean that we should accept all law as being morally right without examining why they are in place and how they have changed throughout the years, who they are really protecting and most importantly, who they are oppressing.

            btw, i have no specific problem with vandalism laws, however, to just lump all street art in with bathroom scribbles is very silly, and misses the whole point of street art, which is often (not always) to wake people up. sometimes that cannot be done through cooperative public art projects, because they have restrictions and certain guidelines they must follow in terms of content. but i am definitely all for those kind of projects as well.

        • Anonymous

          since you did put it out there, i read your blog (if you do not want people commenting on it, do not have links to it). i also commented there, but since it seems to have been erased or not accepted, i will follow-up here. on your blog you say:

          To justify “street art”

          by saying it looks good

          is like trying

          to justify rape

          by saying it feels good.

          this analogy does not work as it is flawed and is a way is bullying others into your line of thinking. defacing property is not equivalent to raping another person. period.

          if we all thought this way, corporations and businesses would be considered to have the same integrity as human beings. unfortunately, many people in the world (basically, the ones who want $$$) already think this way, so please use care in making such comparisons.

          • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

            “Street art” 
            and rape both violate
            a person’s property and seek pleasure
            at the expense of others.

            Also you forgot to include the title of my piece:  ”Perpetrator Analogy.”

          • Anonymous

            i understood your concept. i still disagree wholeheartedly. it’s an extreme viewpoint and it is a sneaky and manipulative (whether or not it is intentional) way to coerce others into agreeing with you. the human body is not the same as a building. rape violates FAR more than a “person’s property,” it violates their body, mind and spirit. you cannot argue that a rape victim and a business owner who has had property vandalized are undergoing the same level of suffering, so your analogy is unnecessarily heavy-handed. and to say people are “seeking pleasure” with street art is not accurate in many cases. what they are seeking is EXPRESSION. you seem to miss the point of it.

            look, i understand why people have a problem with graffiti. what i do not understand is your extremist view and why you feel the need to “fight” street art to defend businesses. business owners are going to have to deal with a number of problems; this is just one of them. it just goes along with being a business owner! sure, graffiti can be annoying and even ugly. but it is not really such a big deal. a large portion of the time, it can be covered up easily with little money (or none if you have a spare bucket of paint around) and effort. personally, if i had a business, i wouldn’t even worry about painting over it unless it was hateful or meant to incite violence. most of the time when people have a problem with graffiti and anything else they perceive to be “ugly”, it lies in their own aversions. it’s a dirty world. get used to it and work on yourself despite it.

  • http://twitter.com/akacocolopez Coco Lopez

    Isn’t everything anonymous until its history is expanded upon? I think you’ve answered your own question in this piece by stating the careers of Haring and Fairey were anonymous until they were ”discovered”. Just because these artists do not sign their name or you cannot identify who they are in terms of style does not mean they are anonymous. I would not say it’s an anonymous piece of street art, but rather an anonymously made gesture into the public domain. Lack of knowledge does not substitute lack of an identity. I am sure there are plenty of people who in fact have no idea who Dali is but certainly love those paintings with melting clocks.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      There are artists we never know. Artists like Haring and Fairey were not that kind. Some disappear into the ether.

      • http://twitter.com/akacocolopez Coco Lopez

        I just don’t agree that lack of knowledge an artist’s identity allows them to be classified as anonymous.  How do we differentiate between street artists that are working anonymously vs. street artists that do not sign their work or have a signature style. Does not knowing who made the work imply that it is anonymous? Anonymous and identifiable artists alike disappear into the ether without ever gaining recognition, but does never receiving critical acclaim make such street artists anonymous?

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          The problem is we can’t differentiate until they reveal themselves. And in this day and age it is becoming harder to remain anonymous so it seems more and more like an active choice. Also, there are street artists who choose to spin off new personas to create a new body of work or one thing in particular and that’s a type of anonymity as well. I think it’s a case by case basis, but there really are many works that appear on the street that remain “nameless” forever, even to some of us who follow the field rather closely.

          In that way, that’s rather like medieval or Renaissance art, where we of call someone the “Master of the Blue Madonna” or something. I’ve been calling the artist who creates the small pissing boys, the “Master of the Krylon Manneken Pis,” after the statue in Brussels on which it is based.

  • http://blog.vandalog.com/ RJ Rushmore

    Thanks for this reminder of what can be so special about street art. Because I often know who did a piece of street art before I even see it and I tend to look at even street art in a more commercial/advertising lens than most people, it’s not all that often that I can get back to the joy of just wandering a corner and spotting an anonymous masterpiece (or just an anonymous gift to the public, which can be amazing in some ways regardless of artistic quality).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Pearce/595391372 Jennifer Pearce

    Emily, as an Art Historian myself I recognise the feeling of refreshment in seeing these anonymous works. I think the reason we don’t need the date and place and context of the work is that the site gives it context, and generally they are ephemeral so the date is current and as we are at that place we are part of or visiting the culture the piece comes from. It’s like seeing the Sistine Chapel ceiling when it was finished. Not signing it is also not about ego as well as pragmatic allusion from the law. It’s like people making nice front gardens to those who appreciate it, its an act of generosity. I think in general I’m in favour.

    • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

      Why then is graffiti and “street art” against the law if they are like “nice front gardens?”

  • Anonymous

    i truly did enjoy this article. anonymous works have always seemed to have a certain purity to me, due to the freedom of expression (and from identity). another reason i enjoy seeing street art is because of how restricted our so-called “public” spaces have become. if space is public, then people should be able to express themselves in it! it’s beautiful to see that being taken back and is a attestation to the variety of differences in people and how it can sometimes manifest in beautiful ways.

    • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

      The two images of “street art” accompanying this article say it all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    “destroy the property of hard-working people”. Um… a lot of street art ends up on buildings that are merely ghosts of a once economically thriving community. Asking questions visually on a building that the owner, in some cases the city itself, obviously does not give a damn about does not harm anyone in my opinion. Obviously it depends on the message.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    When I interviewed Blek le Rat he suggested that some of the ‘street art stars’ of today may not be remembered 10 years from now. As he suggested… he has seen a lot of these ‘stars’ come and go over the last 30 years. One problem he has observed with street art, in general, is that today anyone can slap something up, record it for Youtube, help spread it online — and wham, they are considered a street artist. In his opinion there is more to it than that… and I agree. If you follow Pop Surrealism you know what I’m talking about…. look how many artists rushed to ‘fit’ in that style and with a market that, at the time, was trending in its favor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Also keep in mind that some of the ‘big names’ in street art today are so because of their acceptance within the mainstream art community. Ask street artists who don’t focus on the mainstream art world what they think about some of these individuals and you will find that they have little to no respect for them. Now I know, you could say that is jealousy on their part — but their opinions also point to one issue that really needs to be explored more — that being, do we say that an artist like Shepard Fairey is a great street artist because he is… or do we say that because the media, fueled by individuals with vested interest in his work, tell us to think that way… and thus we do? Look at Fairey — he was launched to celebrity status while working alongside an individual who happened to be a star publicist working for the Obama campaign. One could say that without Yosi Sergant — Fairey would have never got to where he is currently at. With that in mind, you really have to ask if his status was cultivated — and if so, is that wrong? Is street art involving power publicists still street art? Or is it more along the line of Wall Street Art?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Hrag, is there something up with comments on Hyperallergic? Maybe it is just this computer.Things are meshed.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Not sure, we’ve had problems in the past but things look normal on our end.

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