Recently I received a copy of Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, a 324-page release from Taschen edited by Ethel Seno and written by Carlo McCormick and Wooster Collective‘s Marc and Sara Schiller. It’s a lovely book, well up to Taschen standards, and if anyone is looking for a wide-ranging collection of street art photos, it’s a winner. They did their digging when it came to photographs, finding early 1980s gems from a host of people: Barbara Kruger, David Wojnarowicz, John Ahearn, and many more. There are great images from basically every popular street artist today. I will be looking at this book for years to come.
A stipulation for any work included in Trespass, the authors tell us, is that the work had to be unauthorized and without permission. This doesn’t necessarily mean a daring nighttime mission, of course: some of the artworks included in the book are harmless acts of well-photographed guerrilla gardening. Recent TED Prize winner JR installed large-scale photographs across homes facing out to the city on a hillside Rio de Janeiro favela—an act nobody would get close to pulling off without permission, not from the city but from the favela kingpins who control its many rackets. But as a guiding principle for inclusion in the book, unauthorized and without permission is a good one and raises good questions about what art in our public spaces means. Yet for all of the risk taken by the artists involved, Trespass generally feels like a safe book on the part of the authors.
While its subtitle is “A History of Uncommissioned Art,” the authors claim it wasn’t intended to be a formal history, per se. Artworks are grouped into chapter headings like “Public Memory/Private Secrets,” “Deviant Signs, Free Art, and Contra-Consumerism” and “Environmental Reclamations.” While those categories do help with holding the reader’s hand through the book, calling that a “history” feels a little too liberal-arts-college for me. Unlike a painting on canvas, works in the street are very much stuck to a surface, a context, a setting, and a public, with a firm date of creation and expiration. Even in this day and age of street artist internet fame, when street artworks circulate the world as the most effective political cartoons of their day, the place they are installed is still crucial. Even the term “Uncommissioned” is a sugar-coating, a not-really-a-word that smoothes over the ever-greater legal penalties faced by artists working in the streets, even in a time such as now when such art is popular. But if the problem, as the authors see it, is a lack of understanding on the public’s part about such uncommissioned art, why not dare to explain it, to get the artist interviews and to write out and educate the viewer about the work’s context, media, artist, contemporaries, influences, and era? That would be a risk commensurate with the artwork itself, and it’s something I frankly wish the authors had taken.
Part of that risk-taking would include a better accounting for the role that graffiti played in the development of street art. Street art, I’ve said it before and will say it again, is the rollerblading to graffiti’s skateboarding. You can pick it up in an afternoon and it involves little physical risk. It plays better in the “burbs,” that much is for sure. And while street art has been around forever, and so has graffiti, the breed of street art that Trespass features—the first wave in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the second in the late 1990s to the present—has a far larger debt to the graffiti movement than it ever seems to acknowledge. Subway graffiti reached a Technicolor zenith in the mid 1970s, and its anarchic creativity inspired—even only in the sense that something brazenly illegal and free could be effective public art—the first wave of street art, both in New York and, via its notoriety, in other global cities. For its second wave, after New York-style graffiti spread around the world in the mid-1980s, it grew and developed locally for a solid decade before many of the leaders of today’s street art movement, seeing their local graffiti movement flourish, decided to work in the streets at graffiti’s margins, taking its cues from graffiti’s media, style, placement, technique, and collaborative nature. Street art is graffiti’s more socially graceful little brother, but just because he can better explain himself at a party, don’t mistake being presentable for being sui generis. Nothing shows this more clearly than the photos of early street work by artists like Richard Hambleton and Jenny Holzer pasted right over graffiti—something the artists no doubt quickly learned was a no-no.
Still, it’s of course the images that make Trespass special. There’s plenty of annoyingly twee contemporary street art, cutesy visual puns made for internet fame, but there’s at least an equal number of forgotten gems. I love seeing Martha Cooper‘s photo of a Lee Quinones subway wholecar in the same context as one of Philippe Petit stepping onto his high-wire spanning the World Trade Center towers in a state of transcendent concentration. It’s great to see recent projects like the to-be-demolished Detroit homes painted bright orange in the same volume as 1970s abandoned building works by Gordon Matta-Clark. Like any good look back, it makes me look ahead to what the young people today, growing up inspired by the contemporary, extraordinary generation of street art stars like Os Gemeos, JR, and Blu, will do with their surroundings.