Category Archives: Week 9

A Luxurious Visual Experience

It can be argued that no other street artist speaks to vagaries of modern consumeristic life than artist Ron English. A most telling quote from him can be found during an interview in the very successful documentary Supersize Me. “The way I look at it is like, Cezanne was inspired by the mountain he saw out his window, and when I look out my window, I see no mountains I just see billboards and advertisements, so I use that as my inspiration” (Spurlock, 2004).

englishFor English, the monolithic paean to consumerism, the ubiquitous billboard filled with images urging urbanites to become just another cog in the capitalist system, has become his muse. Subverting and skewering the semiotic of modern advertising which dominates the metropolitan skyline has become his life’s work.

Most interestingly, in the interview above, English claims not Warhol and others in the pop art movement as inspiration, but the frenetic work of Pollock and De Kooning. He wants his art to be seen as the whole picture, something missing from much of street art, which seems to wish the to be considered as part and parcel to the place and time it is placed in. For English, his work needs no interpretation. Its symbolism is clear, and the semiotics are rendered somewhat unnecessary.

Take for example his famous piece Abraham Obama. “According to English, the Obama campaign wanted “street artists,” such as himself, to create supportive posters, particularly aimed at young voters, and the artist made sure to put his work up legally” (Seidman, p. 14). I sincerely doubt English would have been all that doubled by the legality, for him, his art often “acts out against society” saying “Legally, I don’t have a right to do this, but as a proponent of free speech, I have an obligation to do this” (Carvajal, 2006). As for the image to the right,  English’s piece is a remarkable remix of the 14th President with candidate Obama in 2008. “To associate a candidate with great former presidents has been a common approach that American poster designers have employed, but Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt had always been seen in the background. English’s creation was a unique exception to the rule” (p. 14). Not only the association of both Lincoln and Obama as representing Illinois ( and Obama’s oft repeated refrain that Lincoln was his favorite president), but clearly Obama’s position as the first black president connects to the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation.

adsSome authors claim issue of interest with English is his relation to the internet, as his art is quite prolific, available, and recognizable. His use of the “corporate persona” as artistic subject fights back against a culture inundated with these identities, often by utilizing the very same means, methods, and subjects the consumerati uses. The World Wide Web (the Web) gives members of the digitally connected public new capacities to evade their subject positions as mere consumers of corporate imagery by providing technological means and social and cultural conditions for consumers to take the commodity signs of mass culture and transform these into popular culture and to create a popular legal culture in the process. By mass culture we mean mass-produced texts, images, and sounds— cultural artifacts circulated to a mass of consumers by centrally controlled media industries. Such a culture is unidirectional, or in Bakhtinian terms, monologic—it speaks from a singular place with a singular voice—and it does not let you talk back, or if you do, your voice is unlikely to be widely heard. You might strategically alter billboards with graffiti, as Ron English, the Guerrilla Girls, and the Billboard Liberation Front do” (Coombe & Herman, p. 920-1).

English is emblematic of a new kind of cultural democracy one which is reactive to the message sent by corporations trying to sell the masses its wares. Ohmann (2000) frames this discussion in Baudrillardian terms, noting the unrealness of corporate billboards are impossible to discern from the real, as they are encoded with the “orchestration rituals of the media” (Baudrillard, p. 21). “Billboards are prime examples of this hyperreality that is created by simulations. By specifically hijacking billboards and presenting a new idea in the fashion of the simulated one, English successfully combats the hyperreal by subverting its illusion-making process. In one of his more successful campaigns, English went after the “supersizing” at McDonald’s. The reality is that humans only need so much food in order to survive, but McDonald’s has convinced the American public that super-sizing is better and cheaper. Culturally, Americans believe that bigger is better, but English actively worked to bring a different awareness by creating an obese Ronald McDonald. In order to confront the hyperreal successfully, the text must include an image, making street culture jamming a very unique form of narrative” (Ohmann 2000, p. 94).

It is this confrontation that English’s work is most important for, especially concerning cultural democracy, which needs to be heard or seen in order to participate the realm of ideas made possible via this free exchange of ideas. As he says in discussing his mural on the United States-Mexico border wall just outside the small town of Penitas, Texas, “The thing about a wall is that people tend to see only one side of it, the side they are on. And for those with enough distance from the wall, it’s all together out of of mind… So how do you bring a wall that’s far enough away to ignore, close enough to see both sides? For me, the answer is simple. Paint it. Make it easier to see” (Parry, 2010).



Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press.

Carvajal, P. (Director). (2006). POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English [Motion picture]. United States: Cinema Libre Studio.

Coombe, R. J., & Herman, A. (2001). Culture wars on the net: Intellectual property and corporate propriety in digital environments. South Atlantic Quarterly, 100(4), 919-947.

English, R. (2008). Popaganda: The art and crimes of Ron English. Retrieved from

Ohmann, R. (2000). The function of English at the present time. Falling into Theory.  Richter, D., ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 89-95.

Parry, W. (2010). Against the wall: The art of resistance in Palestine. London: Lawrence Hill Books.

Seidman, S. A. (2010). Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the US presidency and visual design. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29.

Spurlock, M. (Director). (2004). Super size me [Motion picture]. United States: Kathbur Pictures.

The Future of the Ephemeral: The Inside Out Project & Digital Street Art

Ephemerality is an intriguing notion in an age where the digital has a tendency to immortalize in the form of viral videos, images, and ideas. An artistic work intended for decay now finds itself lingering online year after year after year.  It’s no secret that the act of documenting the the short-lived has been somewhat commonplace since the rise of photography but the internet era has ushered in an entirely new degree of distribution – a degree capable of redefining both purposeful and indirect ephemerality for the foreseeable future.

However, a handful of artists have cleverly embraced the affordances of this digital/ephemeral intersection and created portals for different kinds of experiences.  In October of 2010, a band of “guerrilla artists” illegally “installed” a digital exhibition in the MOMA in NYC.  This exhibition consisted of digital art geotagged to specific GPS coordinated within MOMA’s walls.  And MOMA couldn’t do anything about it. they couldn’t be taken down and the subversive/contextual goals of the digital artists could not be silenced – even by one of the art world’s most iconic and powerful institutions. While these digital installations could only be viewed through augmented reality smartphone application – and were only visible for a limited time – the future of digitally/geolocative tagged images, video, or virtual objects raises some interesting questions about the future of the ephemeral in a digital age.

Notably, acclaimed street artist JR famously redirected the funds awarded him during the 2011 TED Prize in order to flesh out a participatory window into the ephemerality of cultures on the other side of the globe.  In effect, JR’s Inside Out Project is the logical extension of his own work, a way of sharing his preferred form of creativity and handing over the responsibilities – and impact – to those people and communities who are often relegated to the “subject” of his own work.

While JR’s own exhibitions are undoubtedly interesting, I find his founding of the Inside Out Project to be his crowning achievement.  Instead of focusing on the making of street art, he has given the gift of agency to so many who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have it.  Instead of focusing on his own career, he has harnessed commonalities amidst all kinds of cultures to launch much needed dialogue in both high-profile and forgotten parts of the world.  By creating an online framework for others to participate, contribute, and reflect, JR has sparked an ecosystem of cross-cultural exchange on a global scale.

Most striking is JR’s repeated admission that the Inside Out Project is not designed to be any of these things but rather to be purely an artistic act.  It’s not political; it’s just art. It’s not transformative; it’s just creativity. Despite the obviously charged impact of his Women Are Heroes exhibition, JR’s rebuke echoes many of the key elements of the street art movement from whence he came.  He’s not in it for the glory but rather for the expressive nature of the act. It’s ok if the rain washed it away because that’s part of the process. That’s the expectation. ironically, the success of JR’s project has garnered so much attention that HBO Films created a full length documentary feature chronicling his work and the impact it is having around the world.

And much like many of the scenarios depicted throughout the film, what was once intended to be non-permanent is now being documented again and again and again in more and more mediums.  Exponentially compounding, a resounding idea can no longer be as ephemeral as it once could.


Works Cited:

Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek. DIT Day: Moma., 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

JR. “My Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out.” TED, 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Murphy, Heather. “An Artist Who Turns Marginalized Women Into the Stars of Their Communities.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, June 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

The Inside Out Project. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.


From All Cities to All Cities: Urban art in San Francisco, Visual Culture, and Free Opinion in the Streets

Within works of art, messages are conveyed through various mediums and methods of expression. Many street artists have established themselves around the globe, growing in popularity depending on the art and the messaging/themes within. Barry McGee, based in California, creates art that is rising in fame, combining different techniques and styles in order to successfully portray different messages throughout an overall theme of realism and urban life in “lower class” areas and communities. In essence, the hybrid genres and media use realism, appropriation and combination of objects common in society in order to make a statement concerning political and social regimes of thought, as well as remix of multiple genres of urban art. His art spreads messages within society, and getting those messages to be heard beyond one’s hometown with a post-photographic and post-internet style.

McGee invtented a style that, “celebrated a life of improvised urban poverty, skater and surfer attitude, graffiti struggles to claim city turf, art school punk point of view, and other youthful shenanigans” (Pritikin). The art he involved himself with, whether it be individuals or group creations, took a lot of skill and thought but was designed not to look as thought much effort was put forth. McGee used the cheapest of materials, including real life items found on a daily basis in an urban area, quick rendering of images, a variety of subjects within the photos (from “feminist heroines to the bums on the street”), and hobo train art.  Some of the elements included in his works varied from empty liquor bottles and spray paint cans, to tagged signs, to wrenches and scrap wood or metal. The compilation and remix between the various combinations of this style makes his artwork a perfect embodiment and collage of the skater/surfer atmosphere.

McGee’s street credibility and dissemination of his artwork on the web were the two main techniques that needed perfecting in order to get the messages he wished to portray past the borders of his community. The city is his art; his home environment. His artwork was solely inspired by the intimate culture and experiences throughout the city’s streets. In many of his works, McGee draws from his roots of the Mission District in San Francisco, CA, as well as punk and hip-hop styles to remix his art, and was inspired from the contemporary urban culture he knew so well and the gentrification of his hometown since the 1970s. For example, in some of his works on the street, (many used to claim his work was “vandalism), he liked to overturn cars and sometimes light them on fire, using spray-paint to color and pattern the surrounding walls of his work in the streets.



(To view more of McGee’s work, click here: McGee Images)

How I see the hybrid genres and media used by this artist in a dialogic situation is through the integration of elements from all possible interests and relatable appeal within the city. His work was one that allowed direct communication between the art world and the constituents within that area. The street art and graffiti represented on street corners and walls is a vital method of communication that keeps the two entities in touch, while conveying messages concerning social, political, or economic standpoints of living. It allows art to connect with a larger, more diverse audience in the public realm of people’s homes (rather than that of a gallery or the walls of a museum, with known intention of holding creations from various artists). This medium of communication is imperative for messaging and popular support of individuals living within those regions. For example, McGee’s “trademark icon” is that of a male caricature that has sagging eyes and bewildered expression. It is said to represent the homeless people who call the streets their home. “McGee’s characters look anguished, depressed and frustrated with the lower class urban life of which they are a part of” (Hawkins). We as humans are aware of many poverty stricken areas of the United States as well as the world. But, for someone to demonstrate it as a reminder for those who walk past it every day through art, could enlighten those who have never been to the location, and encourage others who do to take action.

6993624742_a7eeb7a358_k Barry-McGee-@-UC-Berkeley-1-500x394 img_2 mcgee-inst-002 mcgee-place-still-017

To inform, to encourage, to generate a message and visual culture that is shared by all is the goal, even if it involves a little risk-taking. When asked about the danger involved in painting his early works of street art, McGee responded, revealing a good bit of character, “I like that aspect of it. You have to get it done without getting caught. I’ve been caught so many times. I was in New York one time. I think I was writing ‘Abort Bush’ on Canal Street. I’d done three or four roll-up gates. On the fourth one – I think the Republican convention was in town, it just wasn’t the right time to be doing that – this taxicab rolled up and four cops jumped out. You just go into the system for twenty-four hours. Community service… that’s part of it.”

(To see McGee in some art-making action, watch this: McGee at Work)

These messages through street art within cities around the world are all representations of struggles, positives, negatives, movements, etc. that a group of citizens could encounter. Within the cities and complexities of visual culture in urban environments, comes an interconnected sense of thematic memorandum throughout the network of global cities. It takes the culture of each place and dematerializes it, breaking it down to represent the elements and experiences of every day life. With McGee making a statement of visual culture in the environment of his city, it prefaces the connection between his city and others, yet maintaining an identity unique to his hometown.

Street art is revolutionizing the way in that individuals are responsive to the real world, bringing to light many aspects of socio-political regimes of visibility as well as the visual construct of struggle and culture. From San Fran, to all cities located on the globe, street art is bringing the free opinion of artists to light, emphasizing the lives of urban communities through hybrid genres of expression.

brooklyn-street-art-barry-mcgee-jaime-rojo-09-12 mcgee-draw-001 mcgee-tagging-still-089


Works Cited

“Barry McGee.” Art21. Art21 Magazine, 2001. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>

Hawkins, Dannie. “Barry McGee: Street Art Becomes High Art.” The Guardsman. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>.

Martin Irvine, “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture” (pdf). See also the thumbnail list of images cited (pdf). Chapter in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London/New York: Berg, 2012: 235-278. This is a preprint pdf of the book chapter; for personal use only. This book chapter represents a work in progress toward my own book on street art and city.

Pritikin, Renny. “Barry McGee.” Huck Magazine. N.p., 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>.

Street Art’s Purposeful Canvas — JR’s “Women Are Heroes”

Emily Rothkopf

Street art is made to be seen.  It is inclusive and anti-elitist, in contrast to the sometimes exclusive and highbrow gallery art.  It does not require a membership to be viewed and is not served with cocktails.  It is not (originally) intended to be curated or sold at exorbitant prices.  It does not discriminate and in fact is typically located in the most diverse, urban areas of the world.  And though it is somewhat temporary in its original form, it is unrestricted in its distribution in the digital world.  It is made to be captured through photography and shared via traditional channels to reach even further depths.  Artist JR and his works exemplify all that is to be lauded about street art.  His works bring remote areas, people and stories, to the masses, through a seemingly selfless and visionary method.

In JR’s “Women Are Heroes” project, he brings light to embattled women in the slums of the world in his ongoing theme of peace and humanitarianism.  Using the street art form, he is able to pay tribute to the countless women who are dealing with the effects of war, poverty, violence, and oppression, on an appropriately avant-garde scale (Hypebeast 2010).  The collection employs black-and-white portrait photography that captures the spirit of his subjects, as expressed in pre-shoot interviews and research.  Instead of displaying his photographs in a traditional gallery or print media format, he places his work in his subjects surrounding environments to honor them in one of the most inspiring and heart-warming ways possible.  He also uniquely situates his work on large, complex surfaces that exemplify the challenges these women face and the grandness in which they should be recognized.

“Women Are Heroes” in Kibera Slum – Kenya, 2009; source:

In his train passage piece in Kenya, he splits three portraits on vinyl (weather conditions were too harsh for standard paper) between a sheet of corrugated iron below train tracks and the side of a train that regularly passes directly above.  “For a few magical seconds each day” the images line up and the women who were once marginalized by society are seen as “large and mysterious stars” (Murphy 2012).  The perfectly aligned image then lives on via another layer of photography to be shared worldwide, in traditional formats.  In his piece in Brazil, JR displays a portrait evenly across the span of an entire staircase in the oldest favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro.  As locals tread up and down these stairs daily, they are reminded to honor these heroic women.  These pieces exemplify an essential element of street art – its cleverness (Semple 2004).  JR has the imaginative mind to see an untraditional, meaningful canvas and the technical ability to make it work.

While some street art is rooted in a graffiti-esque, anti-authoritarian mentality, JR’s latest works exemplify the purposefulness of the art.  True street artists are not using the medium simply because they can, but rather consider the city their necessary environment (Irvine 2011).  JR’s portraits of women would not be as impactful showcased in a pristine, high-class gallery, though subsequent iterations may be shared there.  His work is initally about his subjects and for their respective communities.  Hiding the art away in an exclusive gallery that cannot reach or serve this target audience, nor can be easily photographed and shared with the world at large, would defeat his purpose.  And in turn, he is a successful artist rewarded by the elite for this altruistic, perfectly executed approach.  “Could art change the world?” JR asks; his street art method attempts to do so starting at the root and “turning the world inside out” (TED 2011).


 “Women Are Heroes” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2008; source:

Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. “Street Art and the Digital City.” Theorizing the Web Conference. University of Maryland. 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

JR. “My Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out.” TED, 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

“JR “Women Are Heroes” Exhibition.” Hypebeast. Hypebeast, 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Murphy, Heather. “An Artist Who Turns Marginalized Women Into the Stars of Their Communities.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, June 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Semple, Kirk. “Lawbreakers, Armed With Paint and Paste.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 July 2004. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.



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. <>.

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. <>.