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Between provocation and vandalism: what is street art really about?

At the beginning of march an artwork appeared on the wall of the Reading Prison in Bristol: a mural showing a prisoner in the attempt of breaking out. Since the rope he uses is made of paper coming out from a typewriter, some think the mural refers to Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet who was imprisoned here because of his homosexuality. The question arises quite naturally on the experts’ mind as they analyse this new piece of art: is this Banksy’s? Just a couple of days later, the confirmation arrives: our enigmatic street artist has struck again! No one knows Banksy’s real identity and the artist has always been quite determined in keeping it that way, seeing his invisibility as a sort of superpower. Famous for his provocatory artworks, Banksy is certainly one of the greatest proponents of the street art movement. But what kind of artist is he? And what is street art, really?

The term “street art” refers to all those forms of art, which affect urban spaces, like graffiti, murals or stencils. The costume of painting or writing on walls was common even in early ages, as the Roman and Greek remains prove. However, it is not until the 60s that this became a real movement conquering the streets of Philadelphia and New York. From the beginning, street art has often been associated with vandalism, representing a political act, a way to challenge authorities. In a world where medias control where to focus people’s attention, street art has always been a way of capturing some visibility: in fact, it challenges the authorities’ monopoly of the public discourse while transforming public space in a common open place*. Street art, indeed, plays a lot with provocation but after all, isn’t it what art has always done? Real art is not afraid to defy rules, in fact we could say that many artists have made their name through provocation and scandal. Just think about Édouard Manet, the painter who opened the gates of modern art. Manet was harshly criticised by the experts of his time, who often denied him a place in the famous Parisian Salon. His “Olympia”, for example, created a great scandal because Manet chose as a subject a naked woman that was neither a god nor a mythological figure, but a simple prostitute whose cold gaze challenges the spectator. He painted something that was quite common in Paris at that time, but it was outrageous because that was not something a painter could afford to depict and expose. Just like many street artists, Manet wanted to paint society as it presented itself, making the spectators take off their rose-coloured glasses.

Provocations is also Banksy’s favourite resort. Since his artworks’ first public appearance in Bristol in 1990s, his art has always stand out for its strong messages often presented with a sharp irony, dealing with topics like politics, culture, ethics, and freedom of speech. For example, in 2015 he created a sarcastic amusement park, called Dismaland, taking inspiration from Disneyland to make something that is the complete opposite of it: Dismaland is not a happy escape from reality, instead the atmosphere feels joyless, almost creepy, and the strong political message behind it is evident as the artist transforms ironically reality into entertainment. The fact that all the amusement park looks disturbing rather than a happy place is a punch in the visitors’ face. Just like Manet in his Olympia, Banksy challenges the spectators, forcing them to see our world with a different light, making them feeling unease in front of their naked reality.

Although, the link between street art and vandalism has never fade way, we also have to admit that, nowadays, street artists have often acquired a brand-new role, contributing in enhancing certain areas of the city. Some say that this sort of commercialization process of street art makes its political message weaker, transforming it into an instrument in society’s hands rather than a way for the artist to express freely their point of view. As far as we know, Banksy has often found a way to valorise the urban environment without waiting for the authorities’ authorization to paint. However, it does not mean that artists who paint legally a street wall cannot make a provocative art piece with a deep message. Manet was no vandal and still provoked a great scandal with a simple painting. Art, in fact, has never needed to break laws to be provocative: by simply defying social rules, it pushes us on the edge of our comfort zone, sharply opening our naïve eyes.

Articolo a cura di: Laura Tondolo


*S. A. Awad, Street Art, in “The Pilgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible”, 2020,

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