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A New Context for Street Art: Street Art NFTs

Can there be street art without the street? Ana Bambić Kostov reflects on the emergence of street art NFTs and their impact on an art form seemingly anchored to the material world.

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street art NFT

Vhils, Intervention for the Scratching the Surface project: portrait of José Saramago, Lourinhã (Portugal), 2020. Courtesy the artist

How do we define street art? It’s not exactly a style, it’s hardly a period, and it’s definitely not a medium, although interpretations — and good ones do exist [1] — often attempt to put street art in these boxes. Street art is an umbrella term, embracing (almost) every creative foray happening in public space, carrying the fundamental axiom of the French situationists and the New York graffiti culture of the 1980s that the intervention is more important than the embellishment. Street art is everything in between, and it continues to reach into new domains, especially the digital.

Inherently bound to the public space, street art has shown an outstanding adaptability when it came to the internet. Core tools of Web2 and the expanse of social media [2] took it to a new era, making it accessible to worldwide audiences and rendering it more popular than ever. Quickly after, street art became one of the most collectible contemporary “styles” [3], and the desired asset to many homeowners or real estate developers. Its famous representatives, Banksy or JR, reached planetary fame, as murals turned into landmarks. Even though the subversive elements in the broad world of street art continued to exist and operate , the edge was gone. Officially, street art has become mainstream [4].

Aware of both street art’s recent mass appeal and its older tendency to explore and experiment, I was not surprised when I discovered street art NFTs . I was, however, curious about what this could mean in the broader context of street art evolution and how the blockchain could impact street artists’ practices. Can the development of Web3 change the way in which street art is perceived, owned or funded? Will it disrupt its course or preserve its disruptive character?

Vhils Layers

Vhils, Layers, 2022. Courtesy the artist

A parallel public space

Many of Web3’s fundamental principles are aligned with street art. It’s essentially democratic, inclusive and egalitarian — ideas that street art has been propagating since its earliest days. NFTs are about breaking down barriers , a revolution in the sale and production of art where no middleman exists and work will be made and purchased with or without the support of critics. This acute absence of art dealers and the traditional art world hype echoes the late 20thcentury graffiti culture, a cradle of street art, when anyone could participate and the market was largely affordable. Over time, street art market became a part of the official art market, but many artists still evoke its original values as the essence.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the similarities between the efforts made in street art curation and theory made by leading figures such as graffiti historian Roger Gastman , Nuart’s founder Martyn Reed or Urban Nation’s Yasha Young , and what we are witnessing in Web3 at the moment. Seeking an educated opinion, I reached out to RJ Rushmore, former Editor-in-chief of Vandalog , curator, street art connoisseur, and Artwrld’s Head of finance.

“I think there was already a lot of street art existing primarily in a digital space,” was one of the first observations Rushmore shared, referring to the endless visual archives of street-based artworks across different platforms. According to him, NFTs enabled, for the first time, the sales of digital artworks produced by street artists, some of whom have been creating digitally for years. “I think that aspect of the NFTs as a phenomenon is super-fascinating and powerful and also has an interesting street art parallel. I've been a long-time advocate that the digital space is a form of public space,” Rushmore continued in explaining his comprehension of the Web3 sensation. Considering the artistic intent from which many street artworks originate, the digital space surfaces as a natural extension of the public domain, especially on the decentralised internet where public access to all artworks is part of the canon. Street art NFTs can be organised or curated in different archives and owned without having to cut down a wall .[5] NFTs also allegedly allow for the long-term preservation of art, although that is a different topic.

Preserving the ephemeral

Originally, street art was meant to be ephemeral [6], and this ephemerality was what provided a certain social and historical value to a piece. Paste-ups, graffiti or murals served as mementoes of a certain time in a specific space, and as they deteriorated with age or as they were removed for different reasons, the memory of their existence echoed within the local community and beyond .[7] With the appearance of mega-popular street artists such as Banksy, the attitude towards the potential monetary value in street art changed and so did the need for its preservation. Even though there are arguments [8] within the mainstream discourse stating that preservation of street art is a good way to utilise NFTs, Rushmore has a different outlook: “There are people who said street art NFTs are going to allow preservation in a way that was never before possible. I feel that's a little overstated. I also feel that preservation is not always the correct move. Further — photographs already did that, preserve. You could still put a photo on IPFS without attaching it to an NFT, if preservation was all you cared about.” Thinking about the many online and offline photographic archives dedicated to street art coming in the form of platforms, essays, articles and books, I tend to agree with him — photographs, digital or otherwise, were already preserving street art in the conceptual and historical sense. Its conservation in situ that has always been a challenge and the appearance of NFTs is not going to have much effect on that problem, especially not if an old photograph of a perished wall piece is suddenly offered as an NFT.

So, what could be the true importance of street art NFTs?

Vhils billboard

Vhils, CityScape, 2021. Photo Alexander Silva. Courtesy the artist

A new way to fund a street art practice

Funding has always been a big topic [9] in the world of street art. Coming from and off the street, the initially vandalistic creative expression survived for decades before being recognised [10] as a legitimate art form. Over the past decade and a half, the circumstances have changed for the better with the appearance of foundations, festivals and other organisations that offer funding to artists dedicated to public spaces. Simultaneously, as the market was forming, many of these artists turned to galleries for support, creating moveable, smaller-scale pieces that sell, all to be able to sustain their street practices. Noticing how the NFT space might render the galleries supporting street artists unnecessary, Rushmore mentioned that an “NFT practice can [even] help sustain a gallery practice or a street practice and also allow the experimentation in new spaces while reaching people in new ways and moving information across digital public space.” In reality, there are many opportunities for artists to utilise NFTs to support their practices while remaining true to their voice and without losing street cred.

Additionally, in an informal conversation with Anne Scherer, street art curator and owner of die Kunstagentin gallery , the matter of confirming ownership over a piece came up, which NFTs will make indisputable. She believes that Web3 tools will enable artists to retain author’s rights and collect royalties from resales of their work, an unimaginable endeavour before the appearance of blockchain.

Famous names in the street art NFT space

Looking over the recent street-art-related developments in the NFT space, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Web3 is another useful tool for street-bound creators. Artists such as Vhils have found the ideal way to market their video or create interactive work , something he has been creating for a long time; Shepard Fairey, on the other hand, has found a new way to repurpose and revisit his old work creatively, while Robert Montgomery is already assuming a critical position in relation to the space. Other artists, such as Ernest Zacharevich, a Lithuanian permanently residing in Penang, Malaysia, found NFTs a good way to divert from social media and the overwhelming focus on brand-led content production and monetisation. He creates NFTs to regain the freedom street artists once had while making a parallel between the street art history and the Web3 today: “Just like the streets were a fresh new space for art since the 70s, now web3 is offering a raw unexplored world that is attracting a similar energy.”

Along with the individual creatives, we’re witnessing a surge of new organisations operating in a niche street art NFT domain. Projects such as Streeth , Streetlab , or NFT murals work with street artists on promoting this new type of art, contributing to the popularisation of street art in Web3.

Street art and NFTs: What changes IRL?

While the deep connections between the worlds of street art and NFTs are undeniable, the changes Web3 will introduce to real-life street art won’t be many, the most substantial being a new way to fund street-based projects. However, we must note that the works on the street and on the blockchain are, in fact, essentially different. They are created differently, and often with very different artistic intent . While the essence of street artworks is to disrupt the mundane, to intervene, awaken and inspire, NFTs in this particular context are primarily of supportive nature, archivistic, animated or augmented creations, designed to be collectible. Although the two can coexist in harmony, mutually supporting each other in innovative and exciting ways, the truth is that they will always belong to two separate planes. One is material, raw and fleeting, while the other one is nonphysical — but permanent.

  • 1.

    Rafael Schacter, “Street Art Is a Period. Period. Or the Emergence of Intermural Art”, Hyperallergic, 2016.

  • 2.

    Andrea Baldini, “Street Art in the Digital Age: Photos, Documents, Urban Agency”, ArchDaily, 2020.

  • 3.

    “The Contemporary Art Market Report in 2021”, Artprice, 2021.

  • 4.

    Francesca Gavin, “Street art is now mainstream”, The Guardian, 2008.

  • 5.

    Graeme McMillan, “Banksy Work Cut Out of Wall, Offered at Auction for More Than $500K”, Wired, 2013.

  • 6.

    Ana Bambic Kostov, “The Nature of Street Art”, Widewalls, 2014.

  • 7.

    Raya Jalabi, "5 Pointz: New York's graffiti space is going, going … gone?", The Guardian, 2013.

  • 8.

    Suhita Shirodkar, “Finally, a Good Use for NFTs: Preserving Street Art”, Wired, 2022.

  • 9.

    “Funding Sources for Public Art”, PPS, 2008.

  • 10.

    Jonathan Jones, “The state should fund graffiti artists”, The Guardian, 2009.

Artists and Contributors

Ana Bambic Kostov portrait picture

Ana Bambic Kostov

Ana Bambić Kostov is an art writer, editor, and content manager serving as the Senior Editor at SO-FAR. She has a keen interest in contemporary art and new practices involving digital media. As an art historian, she wrote articles and catalogs and helped numerous artists and organizations curate their website content. Working as Chief Editor of Widewalls magazine until 2017, she immersed herself in the international contemporary and urban art scene. Since, she worked with several international galleries, Discovery Art Fair, International Summer Academy in Salzburg, Homo Faber Guide, and assisted in different art projects internationally.