Swoon and Street Art

Layan Jawdat

Considering street artists on the heels of our discussion of pop artists and the global art world gives us a useful foundation on which we can build our understanding of street art. I am particularly interested in our discussions of pop art and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as an example of reconsidering what we (the art world and the wider public) understand to be art. Danto was struck by the idea that Warhol’s work showed us that anything can be considered art: by virtue of being placed in a museum, an object that otherwise looked identical to something you might find in a supermarket made viewers think about it differently. Moving to street art, viewers and art critics might once again ask what makes a particular object or visual representation of something a work of art.

Street art plays with the idea of what art is by moving art out of the relatively sterile and isolated confines of museums and galleries, or out of the relatively flat medium of archival photographs, into the streets of cities.  Their location on walls, on doors, in alleys, and in other public spaces, visible for anyone walking by to see (and of course photograph and share online)–essentially the context in which they are placed–is integral to the work of art. Location and context determine the social meanings of street art: “the city location is an inseparable substrate for the work, and street art is explicitly an engagement with a city, often a specific neighborhood. Street artists are adept masters of the semiotics of space, and engage with the city itself as a collage or assemblage of visual environments and source material”(Irvine 4).

The fact that street art, by virtue of its placement in the city, is inherently dialogically interacting with its environment makes it unique. Being in a public space also leaves room for even more dialogic interaction: other street artists can layer on images around existing works, time and weather might cause the works (depending on their materials) to get worn out or peel, and the works of art might be painted over or removed. The artist Swoon, who is based in New York and whose preferred medium is newsprint pasted onto walls, is acutely aware of the fact that some works won’t survive very long (Semple). Swoon’s art is typically characterized by images of people inserted into and interacting with the environments in which she pastes the works. See the image below of a boy playing in the bushes for an example of this. These meanings, then, are not fixed. She is interested in the “interaction that comes with being in an open space”(NYT video interview). For this reason, her depictions of people are inserted at street level so that they are immediately visible to people passing by, and so that they can feel like human interactions.


 Street artists like Swoon, therefore, are aware of the importance of medium, materiality, and context to the processes of meaning-making around their works. Interaction, remix, and cultural hybridity characterize street art, which “lives at the read-write intersection of the city as geo-political territory and the global city of bits. Not only are the material surfaces of buildings and walls rewritten, but street art presupposes the global remix and reappropriation of imagery and ideas transferred or created in digital form and distributable on the Internet”(Irvine 19).

Works Cited

“A Street Art Tour Audio Slide Show.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 July 2004. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2004/07/09/nyregion/20040708_STREET_AUDIOSS.html?ex=1247112000&en=58aea13330d86c89&ei=5090>.

Irvine, Martin. “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture.” Chapter in The Handbook of Visual Culture. ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London/New York: Berg. 2012: 235-278.

Semple, Kirk. “Lawbreakers, Armed with Paint and Paste.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 July 2004. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/09/nyregion/09street.html?ex=1136350800&en=17d7086074ca2b5f&ei=5070>.