Street Art as Resistance

Street Art, which has forced its way into the realm of contemporary art today, is in a constant state of ‘becoming’. It encompasses vast and varied means of representation, which includes graffiti, stencils, prints, wheat-pastes, murals and often extends into projects of artistic collaboration – resulting in the creation of street installations or video art. For this reason, it is regarded as a concoction of interdisciplinary forms of artistic expression. Furthermore, it exudes various personally-relevant and societally-applicable meanings. Yet this doesn’t mean its origins, influences or inspirations can’t be traced.

Following an article, via Wide Walls, which contemplates the origins of Street Art, Bojan Maric warns that “one must be careful not to form a strict relation between the teleological notions of the historical forms of urban art expressions (graffiti and tagging originating in the 1970s and 1980s) and contemporary incentives of street artists who create today”. His suggestion is rooted in the notion that street artists who are emerging during the 21st century share in the same energy of graffiti artists of the 1970s and 1980s and this is not entirely applicable to the vast media of ‘street art’. Hence, he says, it is better to acknowledge that the origin of street art lies in the broad creative process of the artist which becomes moulded by their intention to form an antithesis to their current societal context (which covers notions associated with political and socio-economic issues).

Maric concludes his exploration of Street Art by noting that it resides in the cultural spaces of galleries, online communities, public discourse and, due to its popularity, has become an “object of appropriation by the mainstream symbolism of contemporaneity”. His conclusion also includes three points which he describes as pertinent to grasping and understanding the concepts surrounding Street Art:

  1. Street art incorporates a strong devotion to social activism (although this is not always the case, it seems that this was an attribute of artwork that survived the test of time),
  2. Street art represents a phenomenon that is, through self-transformation, constantly transforming the reality of contemporary art and finally,
  3. Street art, as a particular practice, has a role in shaping and constructing new cultural discourses.
Infographic of the influences surrounding Graffiti and Street Art

It is then very clear that Street Art has become a space for nurturing experimentation when it comes to using various media or techniques in expressing messages of rebellion and anti-establishment against the hegemonistic structures of conglomerates, organisations and governments as well as in posing questions surrounding controversial issues, social habits or societal values (often popularised and perpetuated by mass media) to the public.

But how is this done? Which artists are poster-boys of and embody such rebellion?

Shepard Fairey’s OBEY sticker campaign is described by himself as an experiment in phenomenology, seeking to refresh the viewer’s attention to detail and their perception of their environment by presenting an image without meaning. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities. Extending into his work today, Fairey continues to push ideals of free speech and debate as a cornerstone of democracy and highlights patterns of social currency and status signifiers as commentary on the nature of consumerism in our society today.

The first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The obey sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings.

Shepard Fairey


Portrait of a local woman in Butterworth, Malaysia, for the Urban Xchange Festival.

Portuguese street artist Vhils, pronounced “Veels”, maintains that his process is as important as the resulting image because his technique allows for discovering the unexpected as he removes layers of a wall or a poster to create objects of new meaning. Often creating portraits of people, Vhils’ message centers around social commentary of consumerism and commercialism as he consciously constructs by way of destruction.

“This is a method for bringing the past to the present, to think about the future, somehow. You could actually call it archaeology, a different kind of archaeology.”

Vhils (Alexandre Farto)


This particular exhibition by Zevs (pronounced Zeus), entitled The Big Oil Spill, consisted of a series of paintings, monochromes and sculpture. in which he featured his iconic drips and referenced oil spills. His artworks included the subversion the logos of well-known oil companies, Esso and Exxon, as dripping – what he calls ‘liquidations’. This he says, “is an attack on a network of signs of identification, social codes, significations, and emotions. By suggesting an opposing force, liquidation recalls overconsumption, the tyranny of advertising and the slang of the appearances.”


Infographic sourced from Wide Walls. Shepard Fairey images sourced from his website. Vhils images sourced from his website. Banksy cover image sourced from his website.


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