Uncovering the Street Art Controversy

Walking into the Halsey is like walking into the modern world of tomorrow after leaving the historical Charleston streets. Clean black and white walls are adorned with shadowbox depictions of wildlife for the current exhibition, The Image Hunter: On the Trail of John James Audubon. Last Tuesday the gallery’s usually open space contained lines of chairs facing a projector.

Entrance to the Contemporary Halsey Exhibit (Photo by Gabi Loue)

As teachers and art lovers filed in, Bryan Granger, the Halsey director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, welcomed us to the first Halsey Talk of the year. Halsey Talks are artistic discussions designed to involve the audience and are not, in his words, “just speeches by an expert.”

The topic of Tuesday’s talk was Street Art, influenced in part by the current Halsey exhibition. 

Street art, at first glance, is the varied artistic expressions we see outside walls of buildings or structures. But the nature of street art goes much deeper.

To begin and uncover its controversial nature, Granger discussed street art’s history, from the Lascaux cave paintings to the Mexican Muralist Movement to the Kilroy World War 2 etchings to the modern graffiti arising out of the 60s and 70s New York City.

Nicholas Riggle’s definition of street art (Photo by Gabi Loue)

But what does this tell us about what street art actually is?

The night’s discussion was centered around finding a concrete definition of street art from philosopher Nicholas Riggle’s assertion that all street art must be “illegal, anonymous, highly creative, attractive, risky, use the street as an artistic resource and would lose meaning in different locations”. Is all that really necessary for true street art?



For art to be street art, must it be illegal? Audience members discussed how sometimes the street is the only venue for artists, especially from America’s more marginalized groups. Also, many become “disappointed” when they discover a piece of street art was commissioned, as now it seems more like an ad. Yet does this mean that it’s no longer street art?

Banksy Street Art (Courtesy of Flickr)


For it to be street art, must it be anonymous? The jury is still out on that one, as famous street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey (who you can see here in Charleston!), are having their work ruined by enthusiastic fans (people started chipping away stone from a Banksy piece in NYC and selling the rocks on Ebay) and other artists are shunned to the point that their art must be in obscurity. Ultimately, the anonymity of street art (or lack thereof) changes the viewer’s perception. Think about walking through a museum, where there’s an artist  and explanation for each piece, versus walking the streets and coming across a large, colorful mural with nothing attached.



For it to classify as street art, must it always be on the street? The answer from this crowd was an overwhelming “yes!” We agreed that an inherent element of street art is its location outside traditional museums or galleries. Of course there are varied forms, as one audience member recounted her experience with an NYC street artist who expressed his creativity by throwing glitter on dog poop.

While debates followed over the validity of street art or the right of corporations to use it, everything came down to the same question.

Who owns street art?

The audience came up with one answer: It is not the artist, the owner of the building, zoner, landscaper or government official. Street art belongs to the public. It is the public’s to own and the public’s to view. As one audience member eloquently pointed out, defining who owns the art will define how artists can and cannot express themselves, and that would, “add parameters around art.” What kind of authentic expression is that?

“So,” Granger concluded, “do we all feel like experts on street art now?”

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Gabi Loue is a freshman double major in English and International Studies, with a focus on International Comparative Literature, from Wilmington, North Carolina. She likes reading, sunrises, and singing way too many Disney songs at the top of her lungs.

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