I recently got a chance to see Exit Through the Gift Shop - a pretty solid film, as far as documentaries go. The first half is mostly about the street art movement that’s taking place around the world. The second half is mostly about Thierry Guetta, a man who originally obsessively videotaped street artists doing their work, and later became a contemporary artist himself. That’s really all I’m going to say about the film, so don’t worry, there are no spoilers below.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

Even hough it’s not really covered in the film, I kept thinking about the impact that graffiti and street art have on cities and urbanism and urban design. Is it good? Is it bad? Is the term "street art" too broad to really mean anything at all?

Street art comes in many different forms, from the typical spray-paint on a wall, to the more recently popular gluing a large illustration on something, to more 3-dimensional, like the pop-up characters made from old plastic bags installed on the tops of subway grates.

The broken windows theory takes a pretty hard stance against any type of graffiti. The belief holds that when a place becomes covered in graffiti or garbage or is otherwise neglected, it doesn’t look like a place that anybody cares about. Criminals will feel comfortable in these places, because they don’t think that anyone has a vested interest in protecting them.

So the question is: does street art breed crime? Is it a harm to society?

A lot of smart people believe that the cornerstone of the turnaround in New York City can be attributed to cleaning up graffiti on the streets, on the subway and in other public places. By making public spaces look like somebody cares about them, the city was telling criminals that they weren't welcome. Safer streets brought more affluence, which in turn made the streets even safer until eventually we have what is Manhattan today.

At the same time, some of today’s street art really is quite interesting. And it's definitely possible for a place to become "too pristine" and have no character. Nobody wants to live in or visit a neighborhood that's outright dangerous, but there's still an appeal to places that feel gritty or edgy. Street art, by itself, seems harmless. Knowing whether that's actually true is a lot harder.


    On January 14, 2011 austin said...

    Doesn't matter if graffiti breeds crime, it is crime.

    If you draw something on someone's property, not matter how beautiful or intelligent someone may think it is, it is vandalism.