“If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal,” street artist Banksy said. Jaime Rojo and Steven Harrington of Brooklyn Street Art reflect on the relationship between street art, activism, and photography.
Though we are surrounded by omens portending the future before it occurs, many refuse to read “the writing on the wall.” The confluence of graffiti and political action dates back to the Biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast when a disembodied hand scrawled words on the palace wall in a language no one could understand. According to the Book of Daniel, the young hero deciphered the message and warned the king the great empire of Babylon was going to fall.
The parable, contained within the larger story of apocalypse, is uncannily timely given the resurgence of graffiti and street art, two of the most vital, viral forms of contemporary art. Long intertwined with photography and activism, today’s “writing on the wall” has become the medium of the proletariat in the fight against the oppressive power structures dominating everyday life around the globe.
Throughout history artists have taken to the streets to draw attention to the issues at stake in the hopes of radicalizing the populace. From the use of wheat-pasted posters in the 1910 Mexican Revolution and John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi and anti-Stalinist crusades of the 1930s to 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Mexico City, artists have long taken to the streets to expose the corruption of political institutions. Although their works are local and temporal, photography has played an integral role in preserving and distributing their messages far and wide.
“Humans have always had the urgency to leave their mark behind. Walls and rocks have been their canvases for millennia,” say photographer Jaime Rojo and editor Steven P. Harrington of Brooklyn Street Art. “By the 1980s, graffiti writers like Lee Quiñones routinely addressed social and political topics when using New York City subway trains as canvases. Likewise, street art in 2020 has referenced police brutality, structural racism, feelings of alienation, disgust with politicians and a vast economic chasm that is shredding the fabric of society.”
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the BLM movement, the 2020 Presidential election, and government corruption, citizens of the United States have taken to the streets to push back against the abuses of the Trump regime and its local affiliates. In cities like Minneapolis, Louisville, Portland, Los Angeles, and New York, the streets have become a battleground, with fully militarized police deploying chemical weapons, driving vehicles into crowds, and shooting rubber bullets into the heads of unarmed protesters.
“In 2020, we have seen a big uptick in political content reflecting the aspirations and critical voices of society. We saw portraits of George Floyd, lists of names of citizens brutalized or killed by police, statements like 'I can’t breath' – without attribution. It’s not about their identity or career,” Rojo and Harrington say. “In a way, the work is more poignant and powerful because it doesn’t ask you to do more than consider the message — like the hand-painted portrait of football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling in his team uniform with his head down, accompanied by the simple text, ‘Now do you understand?’”
A Movement Born of Tragedy
Brooklyn Street Art got its start in the first major political event of the new millennia: 9/11. Since the 1990s, Harrington and Rojo lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, long before it was gentrified. “The street running past our window was a favorite for people to bring stolen cars and light them on fire for insurance purposes– and an excellent place for sex-workers to bring their clients for brief assignations in their cars,” they recall.
On the morning of September 11, their friend, Robert Clark, a photographer working with National Geographic, shot images of the second plane hitting the North Tower from their roof; the image that would be used inside a special issue of TIME magazine published the following week.
In the wake of the tragedy, Rojo and Harrington noticed remarkable changes in Williamsburg. “The police began peering into our neighborhood, sweeping the streets and windows with floodlights from helicopters every night. We were heartbroken and frightened by what 9/11 had done to our city and we walked blocks just to clear our heads from the daily shouting radio and television.”
Soon they noticed a proliferation of street art as many local artists began putting their work on walls, fences, boarded-up buildings, empty lots, under the bridge, on the back of stop signs — even on grocery store shelves. Rojo began photographing these works, documenting the appearance of a new and quickly evolving artform using practices and materials not usually seen in the street.
“They were painted, glued, drilled, molded, screwed, welded, crocheted — all illegally and many anonymously. It was as if a generation of artists were saying, ‘I may not get shown at a gallery or museum before a dirty-bomb explodes in the subway, so I’m taking my work directly to an audience on the street.’”
Preserving a Disappearing Art
In 2009, Harrington and Rojo published Brooklyn Street Art (Prestel), and created a website of the same name to promote the book, being among the earliest to record and preserve a new movement in contemporary art. “Not only were we observing the maturing of a new generation that was re-defining the nature of unsanctioned art on the streets, we witnessed a flood of ideas and techniques that, for the most part, earlier generations hadn’t considered viable or valuable,” Harrington and Rojo say.
Inspired by documentary photographers including Martha Cooper, Janette Beckman, Jamel Shabazz, Henry Chalfant, Jon Naar, Joe Conzo, and Jim Prigoff, among others, Brooklyn Street Art has become one of the foremost sites for the latest work in the field. In February, they will publish Street Art New York (Prestel), documenting the evolution of the art form over the past 20 years.
“Street art culture can be a vital force for change in its unvarnished direct confrontational voice, as well as its sophisticated subversion of expected norms,” they say. “Because it does not have to be vetted by other interests, it can be clear and as a result, shocking. The political ideology is there in the illegal work on the streets, and the ranks of the pissed-off have only been rising. Unless it is crushed or buffed by the police, the truth-telling and challenging voices will persevere.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Street Art New York
Published by Prestel
Book available here.