Fairs Books USA

Words on the street

This atlas aims to cover graffiti artists across the world—and largely succeeds

El Mac’s La Reina de Thaitown (background by Retna), 2010, in Los Angeles, features in Rafael Schacter’s globetrotting book

It is a marker of how far street art has come since the late 1960s that the movement has been given the “atlas” treatment by Rafael Schacter, the anthropologist and curator who organised Tate Modern’s “Street Art” exhibition in 2008. Following in the footsteps of Phaidon’s Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture and John Onians’s Atlas of World Art, Schacter’s World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti circumnavigates the globe, from the murals of Mexico City to the stencils of Sydney, taking in 113 artists from 25 countries along the way.

The problem with mapping an artistic practice as diverse as street art is that it does not follow normal boundaries: it is not tied to one discipline, it is often temporary and transient and, most importantly, it is meant to be encountered in the street. These factors make Schacter’s efforts to condense the movement into 113 bite-sized entries (most artists are given just two or three paragraphs) all the more problematic.

In his introduction, Schacter acknowledges the inherent problems in defining street art, which he refers to throughout the book as “independent public art”, a term coined by the Spanish theorist Javier Abarca. It is one of street art’s greatest crises of confidence that it cannot simply be called graffiti or street art for fear of being sidelined by the fine-art establishment. Schacter gets around this by saying that he has chosen to feature “contemporary artists who independently produce art in the public realm”. He excludes works that have been made for galleries or sold in auction houses, pieces commissioned by institutions and those scrawled on the walls of public toilets (called latrinalia). But the activist works of the Russian collective Voina are in, as are the US artist Mark Jenkins’s hyper-real figurative sculptures.

The book is divided by region. First is North America, where New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are, unsurprisingly, given special treatment. The short blurbs written by local artists and critics provide potted histories of street art for each city, but lack any critical depth. They are, however, extremely useful as “who’s who” guides to graffiti artists, who often go by abbreviated names.

Mexico City, São Paulo and Buenos Aires are the focus of the Latin American section, which offers a snapshot of the thriving scene in the region. A rich history of public art, from the Mexican muralists to the Brazilian tradition of pixação (a type of parietal writing that started in the 1950s as political slogans painted in tar on government buildings), provided fertile breeding ground for a second wave of street artists who came up during the 1980s. As one would expect, the big names from this era—such as Os Gêmeos, Vitché and Nunca—are featured. A rare reference is also made to the female artists who have made their mark in São Paulo, including Jana Joana, Nina and the Mexican-Brazilian Fefe Talavera.

A whistle-stop tour through Europe offers several gems. The giant penis Voina painted on a drawbridge in St Petersburg near the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service makes an appearance, as do the more innocuous spray-painted bicycles by the Dutch artist Jeroen Erosie. Ephemeral works painted in snow, such as the Swedish artist Akay’s Graffiti is not a Crime, 2007, and the Italian Filippo Minelli’s Line, 2009, are also captured for posterity.

The final chapter, dedicated to the “rest of the world”, lumps together cities in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, with one page devoted to Dal East, who was born in the Chinese city of Wuhan and now lives in South Africa. However, the Middle East, which has experienced an explosion in street art since the Arab Spring, is left out. Schacter acknowledges that the term “rest of the world” is “unsatisfactory”, but the omission of artists such as the Egyptians Ganzeer and Keizer is glaring.

And that is the problem with compiling an “atlas” of this kind; it is impossible to cover the whole world. Schacter does, though, make a compelling and visually seductive selection from 50 cities. The book is not an in-depth survey, but it never claims to be. It is, however, a sign that street art—which, in Schacter’s words, has so often been “treated with disdain”—is being given the attention it deserves.

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