Legal street art equals censorship?


In a process of legitimization and acceptance, street art surely have to make some more or less painful compromises. It is far from certain if such adaptation will reduce the value of street art nor its role and functions in the cityscape – but it very well might be the case. Anyway, if a legalization of street art will occur, it will cause a change in the field. With street art now selling for millions in solid, old auction houses, we have probably been witnessing this transformation for some years now.

However, what happens when a consortium consisting of a commercial enterprise and the municipality decides to offer legitimate walls for street art? Spurning my writing is a situation where an energy company and the municipality have decided to offer legitimate walls – or electrical boxes that is – for street art. Is this just an appreciation of street art, or does it have other implications as well?

The power to define street art

In a way this is of cause a recognition of street art, but at the same time there is stated intentions of reducing unwanted tagging and scribbling. So then, we are down to definitions – and the power to make those definitions.

How do they define scribbles – how do they define street art? Which forms of street art are they promoting and which forms are they denouncing? Is there an aesthetic evaluation – and if, grounded in whose aesthetics – the aesthetics of the establishment? Or is there a political evaluation or an ethical – and if so, whose politics and ethics are deployed? I guess this leaves us close to the process of defining street art. Will the officially accepted street art differ from the more anarchic forms? Is actually anyone interested in a transmutation on this foundation?)

As with the case in question, they have set up a selection process with an active screening of works and artists based on applications containing sketches. Some of the conditions are explicitly stated: no images of persons, no party-political or commercial statements, and no racist symbols or statements. Still without an announced jury who has to argument for their judgements, nor any other form of openness in the processes, other conditions are likely to be taken into consideration as well.

Anyhow, how does one define a party-political statement? Does one have to write the name or the logo for the party, or could it also be related to the party’s core ideology, values or goals? If you have a party for let us say promoting clean city air, could a street art piece criticizing air pollution be interpreted as party-political? I would like to see anyone interested in doing street art that is familiar even with a working-definition of “party-political statement”.

In addition, the condition of no commercial statement – towards which I am more inclined to be enthusiastic – is somewhat ambiguous. Of cause, it intends to ban advertisement for businesses, but would the ban also apply to anti-advertisement? If «Buy this» is forbidden, would «don’t buy this» also be excluded? Like “Boycott Lancôme’s animal tested products!”


The Energy company who is taking part in this project – by offering ”wall space” on selected electrical boxes spread throughout the city – is one of the largest companies in Norway in manufacturing, wholesale and transmission of electric power. Owned by the state and municipalities, but operating on commercial terms. Will they allow street art on their boxes to criticise the destruction of pristine nature by the building of power lines, -plants or dams – or will they deny such a proposal?

Even the uncertainty here, that it is possible to raise questions of these issues, is enough for me to be somewhat sceptical. Combined with a secret “jury” and non-public processes, some form of political/commercial censorship could very easily take place – intended, or probably more likely unintended.

Street art often has a rather explicit anti-commercial position. What when the providers of these legal walls, explicitly demand to use the street art painted on them (for free) for illustrations and promotion of the project (and thereby their business). To paint on these spots will de facto imply to donate your work to an organisation who clearly intends to use it for commercial purposes. It is possibly to far-fetched to regard this as taking an active part in promoting a company, but it obviously is a somewhat deliberate connection here.

The implications of sponsorship

The issues here have some resemblance to the discussion of grants to artists in general. Is it immoral to receive money from, as a timely example, a cooperation that destroys ecosystems by excavating tar-sand and contributes to large-scale co2-emissions, or is the origin of money of no matter? Most artists seem to go for the last position, but some refuse to be nominated for dirty-grants. From the debate, it seems like it most often comes down to whether the artist could be taken in support of the cooperation in question by receiving the grant. In this case of street art, there is no grant, not even covering of expenses, only a “canvass” to use for free. However, there is no doubt to whether to paint on the designated slots could be taken in support of the cooperation. While an “ordinary” artist is paid for her work, street art is in most cases free for all and done without prospects of making money out of it. This should leave street art extra sensitive for any attempt on censorship and commercial use.

One of the conditions for applying is that the applicant signs with full name, address and age(?). The proposal, as with all mail to the local government – is made public available. This will a least make it less likely for those operating with a broader definition of legal walls to apply for one of these designated spots. Using their tags or a recognizable style will surely compromise their anonymity – to the extent that this is of any importance. Maybe going public with name, age and address is not an issue, but for me at least it seems unnecessarily controlling – regardless of any connection with previous street art activities.

The broad range of street art

Street art is an ambiguous term spanning from the political protest, puns and pranks, to regular art murals, from the anarchic and illegal to commissioned works. The works position themselves along a continuum from art for art’s sake, to art as social and ideological praxis. If recognition implies to open up for censorship and commercial use, the compromise will move the centre of gravity towards the pure art and decoration. Street art may be reduced to “outside art”. This is a different process then the “gallerysation” of street art, which is making it “inside art”. The gallerysation is driven from below, stirred by a wish to make a living from ones labour, or maybe even the word vocation might be appropriate. It is a huge structural leap from individual artists trying to make money out of their work, to corporate and government actors intervening in a way to control and commodity street art.

The good shit, or…

To sum up, where does this leave me?  I applaud the initiative as a project for prettying up the city and give the citizens an opportunity to express themselves. However, as a project for promoting street art, I think it violates too many of the fundamental qualities of street art – the freedom of expression, the impulsivity, the non-commercial aspect, and its role as cultural critique. Not all these qualities need to be present in every work, or be hugely important for every artist, still if you take them all away you lose something vital. Street art would then possibly be acceptable to the establishment, but at the same time be devoid of transformative power and social significance.

I love to watch the legal pieces, they are great work, but I am not sure the street art will benefit from this in near the same way as the energy cooperation and the municipality has legally secured for themselves a potential for doing.

Legal street art equals censorship?

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