Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.
There's a political bent to photographer Yoav Litvin's new book chronicling New York's most ephemeral art.
Defiant, farcical, profane: These are the words that come to mind when attempting to describe the street art that photographer Yoav Litvin has chronicled on the streets of New York for the past few years. Semi-sanctioned, quasi-legal, or downright illegal, the works that draw Litvin’s eye—those created by alternative painters, graffiti artists, collagists and muralists—are compiled in his new book, Outdoor Gallery: New York City (Ginko Press). The resulting collection makes a compelling case that ephemeral street art is a cultural treasure.
Although society tends to look at these outdoor works as vandalism, Litvin takes a longer view. The book profiles 46 artist, mostly pseudonymous personalities—Toofly, Miyok, Icy and Sot, Gaia, Kram and Bunny M being just a few—to prove street art’s current wave impacts contemporary aesthetics just as powerfully as the Salon de Refusés did in the nineteenth century. Much of that has to do with exposure: While posting on private and city-owned surfaces ensures these works won’t be around for long, the street provides enviable visibility while they last. These days the format is distinguished by its rebellious edge, too: As Litvin says, “I can appreciate the rush and risks artists take when putting up pieces in public. I also really admire their generosity in taking these risks to share their vision.”
Litvin began documenting street art after a battle with illness left him physically incapable of any form of exercise other than walking. As he began walking more and farther, he ended up exploring unfamiliar parts of New York, where he “consumed more and more of the graffiti and street art culture [and] fell in love with its beauty, humor, and the way it challenges convention.” His love for the format has a lot to do with its politically defiant messages: “It is an incredible, non-violent way to raise issues in the public sphere and promote positive change. As a political person, I am drawn to the rebellious and confrontational nature of much of it.” By documenting these urban works, he aims to share, celebrate, and contribute to its peaceful protest.
Litvin’s not the first to notice street art’s captivating qualities: Outdoor Gallery is just one installment in a long history of photographers capturing New York’s native works. In the 1970s photographer Henry Chalfant co-authored Subway Art and the sequel Spraycan Art, documenting the wave of graffiti as part of hip-hop culture, the kind that drove city mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani nuts. Their crusade against street art is documented in the 1983 documentary film, Style Wars, a must-see history of New York graffiti tagging that Chalfant also co-produced.
In the ‘80s, however, graffiti edged out the kind of street art deliberately preserved within Outdoor Gallery’s pages—mural paintings and mixed-media postings. While Litvin’s book chronicles both, he makes a point to distinguish between graffiti and street art. Graffiti as we know it today, he says, is an originally American art form that began in the late ‘60s, likely in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. “It involves writing letters and has developed into a range of styles in many different geographical locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.”
By contrast, street art, in his words, does “not necessarily abide [by] a set of rules or conform to specific styles, but is dependent more on the individual training and influences of the artists.” It can include characters, typography, figures, abstract symbols, three-dimensional installations, and more.
Litvin emphasizes, though, that the rise of graffiti led to a greater awareness of street art among the mainstream, as well as the rise of a synthesized art: “Nowadays, many pieces on the street are a mixture of both graffiti and street art.”
Whatever the distinctions, Outdoor Gallery highlights artists “producing high-quality work and creating a narrative that spoke to me personally and to some aspect of life in New York City.” The book covers all aspects of method and manner, including traditional graffiti, street art by locally based artists, and work produced by international artists who treat New York as, Litvin says, “the Mecca of graffiti and street art.” Predictably, there are many pieces in the book that have already been removed from the actual streets, which underscores why Litvin believes he needs to document this art: gentrification.
The way Litvin sees it, street art creates a paradoxical phenomenon. Its aesthetic appeal attracts wealthier inhabitants to the areas where it’s posted—and yet their very enthusiasm may ultimately destroy it. “Artists, and specifically those displaying on the street, serve as magnets that attract a younger and ‘cooler’ crowd to an area,” he says. “To the delight of property owners, this crowd of mostly young professionals drives real estate prices up, rendering it too expensive for local communities, as well as for those same artists that served as a force for the change.”
Yet street art has a philanthropic side, too. Litvin points out what he believes to be an art-world trend—nonprofit organizations collaborating with local groups to introduce art by way of the streets, with works usually including large-scale, legal murals by world-renowned artists. Characteristically skeptical, Litvin says that the potential downside is that the community outreach goal might dampen street art’s non-curated, rebellious nature. He’s also worried about the intentions of artists who participate in such popular, attention-grabbing endeavors: “Some feel there are artists who use its popularity solely as a springboard into galleries and museums.”
Litvin is not willing to cede the art to self-interested upstarts. He createdOutdoor Gallery to keep his ideal of the medium alive: “Street art is rebellious and political in our capitalist society [due to] the mere fact that it is viewed freely and serves as an alternative to the consumerist agenda echoed by the endless array of commercials we’re all exposed to,” he says. Although Litvin accepts it will be extremely hard to predict a future for the street art movement, he harbors some faith that the future will continue to honor its rich, insurrectional past: “I do hope that in its essence it holds true to its progressive, pro-social underlying agenda by continuing to challenge mainstream norms and taboos.”
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.