From the moment buildings sprouted up from the ground in the formation of the concrete jungles we call cities, there were those who saw the bleak, grey walls as a canvas to express and expose themselves to the public in an unfiltered fashion. From its illicit and illegal beginnings, graffiti and street art has made its way into the protected and profitable world of fine art galleries (a shift that not everyone in the realm is fond of.) Yet the change has not come by way of the quality or effect of the art itself, which was always there, but the understanding of those viewing it. Sometimes it just takes a new set of eyes to appreciate what was there before.
The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti by Rafael Schacter strives not only to document, organize and illustrate the breadth and wealth of street art in the world, but also to educate the reader. He defines each artist along the way with an encyclopedic litany of fine art terminology, which at times can sound a touch pretentious, but is always done with the utmost sincerity. The book is a gallant effort to prove that these artists are not just taggers and their work is more than urban distraction. It has meaning; it is layered; and it has value.
Schacter intricately moves across the globe, splitting it into huge geographic sections to display the graffiti cultures and their connected influences. Some artists find their work determined by their surroundings, which may be more desolate or decrepit than others, like Kenor who is quoting as wanting to “decorate the dead cities,” while others see their style more defined by the social and political current running through the area. The book touches repeatedly on the battle in certain areas of the graffiti world between social awareness (from people like Jetsonorama) and chaos and destruction (from others like Katsu.)
The artists’ portraits also help illustrate their passion for the style and the outlet, proving that it is far more than just a playful rush (although for some that is a huge part of it.) Many of them have backgrounds and masters level educations in the fine arts and graphic design. The walls, streets and billboards of the open city offer more than just space; they are inspiration for the piece itself.
There is also another internal struggle between creating art and creating marketing. Each artist wants to be known and have their pieces carry a certain type of recognizable style, but they do not want to cross the line into commercialization and crass pandering to the fine art establishment. For those folks who live in both worlds (the street and the gallery), this can be especially tough.
While the book is not a quick read by any means (you almost need a degree in fine arts to understand all the terminology), it still works as an impactful display of passion, skill and artistry which may just inspire the reader as well.