At a gallery show of a noted street artist a few years ago, an attendee explained to me how he’d acquire pieces he’d find on the street. He was clearly proud of his clever technique for stripping away the works with minimal visible damage.
I’m embarrassed to confess that, despite my annoyance, I didn’t challenge him at the time. I’ve been thinking about that moment ever since, however, and about why it troubled me so deeply.
I love finding street art in the wild. And I love taking pictures of what I find. Photographing street art provides a way to have a representation of the work that I can share by posting the photo online. More critically, it allows the artwork to remain in place for others to discover on their own.
Pilfering a piece of street art not only deprives others of the joy of encountering it in the world, it also removes the work from its intended context. Street art appears on the street because that’s where the artist wants it viewed.
In photographing public works, I often wrestle with whether it’s better to show the work in a tight close-up (which many fans seem to enjoy) or display it in a wider shot that shows how it appears in its environment. I typically capture both views, although with fragile works I try to keep the latter from revealing too much about the work’s exact location. It’s a tricky balance between showing the artwork’s full context and making it vulnerable to thieves.
However the shot is framed, photographing a work not only records it in a certain location, but also at a specific time. As the sun moves across the sky (or street lights illuminate the night) the work looks different. The changing seasons give it different hues. As time passes, the work evolves. It is aged by weather, defaced or stolen by thieves (often leaving a ghostly echo of the original work), or buffed by city workers. All these alterations add a chapter to the artwork’s story. While it’s sad when a beautiful piece gets buffed, it’s part of the life cycle of the work.
A work of street art is a living thing — often fragile, evolving, impermanent — best left to live out its natural life span in the wild, where it can be enjoyed in different ways at different times by everyone.