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Can Street Art Survive the Mainstream?

What was just visual urban litter a few years ago is now museum-curated art. Where is subversive art going and how will it take shape in coming years?

This post is in partnership with Pepsi Refresh Project

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the galleries of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) are packed. From artsy types and skaters to little old ladies and children, everyone’s here to see the new exhibition, Art in the Streets. Just a few years ago, most of these people would have considered the paintings up on the walls to be visual urban litter. Laurie Dewan, a media consultant who stopped in on her lunch hour, said it well: “A lot of the work is funny, some of it is beautiful, a few pieces are transformative—it really shows the evolution of street art from annoyance to the creative enhancement of a city.”

First of all, it’s important to note what street art is—and isn’t. “Tagging is vandalism,” says Jorge Piña of San Anto Cultural Arts, a nonprofit organization that won a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant in 2010 for its community mural program. “[But] graffiti is an art form that includes expression, balance, color, technique, and style.”

In the right hands, the results can be staggering. Shepard Fairey, Blu, Invader, JR, Barry McGee, Ron English, and yes, of course, Banksy—are geniuses who’ve been at this for years. To learn more, check out what some think is the definitive book on the subject: The History of American Grafitti by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon.

Moving to the mainstream has changed some of the fundamental perceptions about street art. “Before, street art was anti-proletariat, aesthetic, and illegal,” says Jonathan LeVine, who owns Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York, one of the foremost galleries () dedicated to subcultures and underground art. “Nowadays, it’s not really like that. Everyone’s doing it, and there’s a lack of authenticity.” Though it’s kind of cranky, other people feel the same: It was cool and undiscovered before, now art school students all run outside after graduation to put up some work. It also changes the scene for artists themselves. Dan Witz, a renowned street artist who’s been doing this for decades, brings this home. “Lately, with the ever enlarging awareness of street art as a bona fide art form, I run into more and more people who seem to know what I’m up to. Which can be kind of uncomfortable, because for me doing street art has always been such a private act.”

On the upside? One of the co-founders of the Faile art collective (who goes simply by the name Patrick) says, “The work resonates with people in a direct way. It's not pretentious or elitist. It really speaks to people and that's something that conceptual art has missed for so many years.” It’s also been around for a while now, and as we’ve become more media savvy and image-conscious, street art isn’t shocking anymore.

So what’s the future of street art? From Evol, who creates entire cities in miniature using stencils on stone walls, to incredible animals by Roa, to the insanely beautiful underwater sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor, there’s some pretty awesome stuff happening. Other people’s to watch include Swoon, Borf, and Kid Zoom, to name only a few.

“As more people work on the street, the whole label will change,” says LeVine. “The name ‘street art’ will go away, and it’ll be just another way to do art.” And what’ll be left in its place? Something amazing, something really fresh—but no one knows quite what that will be. As Witz says, “Assuming the next trend in art is also artist-motivated and internet-driven (audience-powered), just like street art it’s going to be game changing, eye opening, and totally awesome!"

Read more from the GOOD Guide to Finding Arts and Culture here.

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