I was recently invited to a private tour of the amazing Faile art gallery in the hipster neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, thanks to our client and private art collection adviser and interior designer, Maria Brito. Maria organized and hosted a private studio tour and artist talk with Soho House for their members. After personally meeting the artists, Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeal, and getting a sneak preview of their newest show debuting in London on November 3rd, I found myself truly inspired by the gallery's variety of thought provoking, visually captivating street art pieces.
As a branding, communications, and marketing executive for over 15 years, I naturally started to piece together the unique voices present in street art's messages. Themes of love, relationships, politics, and social commentary filled the artwork, which ultimately got me thinking about the true origins of contemporary mass communications that are now enhanced through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, YouTube, and more.
Historically, art has been used as a means of communicating important messages to communities of individuals, not unlike how today's individuals and brands are using social and mobile media. As I looked to further compare street art with the rise of social media, I asked contemporary art expert, Maria Brito, a few questions about the birth of street art and its role in urban development.
"When artists started 'tagging' walls with graffiti in NYC in the late 1960s, most of them wrote their names or aliases and either the name of the street where they lived or the number where they lived," explains Brito. "Street art has sometimes been called urban art, and it's definitely inspired by the growth of the urban metropolis, with all of the big cities that have grown so much in the past 40 or 50 years."
Looking at street art as a communications system that developed alongside urban growth provides the perfect lens through which we can examine social media. As social media has developed alongside the rapidly expanding digital movement, it has served as the individual's mode of communicating with others. Just as early graffiti artists 'tagged' their names or aliases all over the city, people utilize social media as a way of communicating their thoughts with a constantly expanding community of others.
The comparison between street art and social media goes further, as we look more closely at the methodology of 'tagging'. Particularly, street artists have developed very innovative modes of displaying their individual messages in public places, using location, imagery, and repetition as tools for reaching the largest audience. This directly parallels geo-specific social media platforms, like Foursquare. On these social media sites, users target locations to leverage their brand messages with specific niche communities. In this way, street artists serve as the predecessors to location-targeting social media platforms.
By boiling their messages down to short phrases or slogans, artists like Banksy and Shephard Fairey have essentially utilized the physical elements of cities (buildings, walls, subway cars) as their platform for communicating. Whether they are trying to make political statements, display thoughts on relationships or just self-promote, street artists have mastered the art of communicating their individualized messages.
Twitter in particular serves as an interesting model for comparison. Like the short repetitive phrases that graffiti artists incorporate, Twitter enforces a strict 140 character limit on posted messages. By providing the platform on which one can communicate with millions of others, Twitter gives users the ability to craft precise messages to share. Similarly, Facebook, and its even larger audience, has actually adopted the same methodology that the artists utilized before them: focusing on location. There is a reason that Facebook users post content on each other's walls, mimicking the street art or tagging of generations past.
All of this leads us to today's digitized world. In some way or another the social media world has influenced the way that we interact with one another, as well as the way we engage with brands. In the same way that street art pioneers first utilized physical elements as platforms for communicating their message, individuals have the same opportunity to utilize the digital world as a similar kind of platform. As these platforms have developed, users have been able to personalize they way they communicate on them, conveying messages that reflect who they are.
What we have brewing with the rise of social media is a new platform on which individuals and brands alike have the ability to repeatedly communicate messages to one another, whether they are as trivial as a teenager's status update, or as important as President Obama utilizing Facebook to reach out to voters.