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May 15, 2012

Guerilla art for art’s sake alone?

In the last decade or so, guerilla art (or “street art”) has become a goldmine for ad agencies that desire to get across their message by way of shock value. But before that, of course, guerilla art didn’t always have a distinct consumer veil.

Image via Mark Jenkins

With pieces owned by celebrities and an award-winning documentary to his name, Britain’s Banksy is arguably the world’s most famous street artist. His work typically explores themes condemning war or capitalism. Or both. But don’t think the anti-establishment nature of guerilla art doesn’t mean it’s not big business.

Back in 2006, the expression “the Banksy effect” started to be used ubiquitously in the art world in order to point to the popularity of Banksy and how his own financial success had a positive impact on other street artists.

Image via Mark Jenkins

While Banksy seems to be the poster child for guerilla art, he doesn’t rule the scene. For instance, Mark Jenkins’ work has been seen on the streets of New York City, Seoul and Moscow, although he is currently based in Washington, D.C. Known for tape sculptures, his early art was non-commissioned but in 2011, he collaborated with Beck’s for the Green Box Project.

In an interview with Arrested Motion regarding the project, Jenkins explored how technology has helped with the proliferation of art. “The internet continues to be the primary medium for publishing new street art works and sites like, and this site are these sort of the internet publishing journals,” he said. “They document new bodies of works and also with the idea that other artists can build upon them.”

While social media and the web have helped artists to gain recognition, the concept of guerilla art is quite fixed on the space itself. How does location inform the meaning of art and vice versa?

Image via Roman Tyc

Image via Roman Tyc

Roman Tyc, a guerilla artist from the Czech Republic, recently hijacked 48 traffic lights in Prague. What did he do with them? The replaced images were of people drinking, dancing, defecating and more. The act got him an award at Austria’s Sidewalk Cinema Festival in Vienna, but he was jailed for 30 days because he didn’t pay the fine that he was given. He did, however, pay for the repairs.

In a similar vein to Tyc, Banksy has always been vocal about how governments consider (unsanctioned) street art vandalism. But of course, at the core of guerilla art is the reconfiguration of what is considered public space and who has rights to it. It’s about creating a location that doubles as a conversation.

Guerilla art, then, can have activism in its DNA. An apt example is how this type of protest imagery sprouted during the Arab Spring. In February, Madrid’s Casa Árabe put on an art show called “Revolution Paintings: Graffiti and Arab Public Places,” which explored art-meets-activism in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.

“Alongside large-scale murals and cooperative art projects, smaller works appear,” said New York Times writer Grace Duggan on the exhibition. “Stencils of politicians berate, condemn and satirize. Some photographs show riffs on famous Banksy and Shepard Fairey pieces, while others preserve slogans as simple as “Think” or “Revolution” scribbled on a wall.”

Jenkins once said that guerilla art is beneficial because it reminds us that “public space is a battleground.” What’s more, street artists can attest to Shakespeare’s famed phrase “All the world’s a stage.”