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Ron English Headshot

Street Art: It's Not Meant to be Permanent

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I did a huge mural in downtown LA last year and felt very blessed to get a chance to do such a big space. Recently the building buffed over it, and people have asked me how I feel about it. But I think they forget, I've been doing billboards, bus shelter posters, paste-ups and other extremely temporal art on the streets for many years. I don't believe Street Art is meant to be permanent. If the owner of the building wants it down, if someone paints over it to paint something new, it's all fine because it's fulfilled its purpose. Street Art is an experience, and then it's a photo, a You Are Not Here moment. These moments are meant to mark time, and to remark on times. And times change.

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I studied photography in college. I would draw figures in charcoal on cardboard and put them into public places to take my photos. Eventually, I went over the billboards in the backgrounds with my own art, and the billboards became the foregrounds of my photos. All of it was handpainted on seamless paper and wheat-pasted in broad daylight. Sometimes they stayed up for weeks; a couple even stayed up for months, but most were gone within days. I was left with the photo, the experience of putting it up, the perception of people encountering it, and the sly joy of having made some noise, without being invited, or controlled.

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I put up a billboard in Baltimore some years ago. "The King of the Jews for the King of Beers." It was one of the first legal billboards I'd ever done. It was for an arts festival, and the organizers actually built a billboard structure to display it. Three days later the billboard was vandalized and destroyed. The attack on the billboard spawned national press attention. Two hundred Christian radio stations went on about it for over a week. I called a couple of the stations and said "Hey, I'm the guy who painted the billboard you have been going on about. Could I come on air and say what I was thinking when I created it?" The answer, "We don't care what you think." I'd already had my say, now it was their turn. So the billboard lasted three days as a physical object and two weeks as media fodder. But the idea was out of my head and in the public consciousness. Mission accomplished.

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I started doing what has now been branded as street art in the late seventies. To be the artist I wanted to be and to engage the public the way I wanted to do required me to commit quite a few felonies. As far as the society I belong to was concerned, I was an outlaw. But over the years, something changed. My billboard liberations, graffiti, tagging, artistic activities that had the public so unnerved evolved into something new, or maybe the perception towards the art and artists evolved. Artists working on the streets are no longer considered outlaws; they are now "street artists." Or, as I prefer to call them: in-laws.

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I have lived through a few art movements: Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Neo Expressionism, Neo Geo, Pop Surrealism and of course Graffiti. The only one of these movements that really had life outside the museums and galleries was Graffiti. And Graffiti's shelf-life within the Gallery system was short. The Art World loved them and left them, returning the untamable phenomenon to the streets that spawned them. And then there was street art.

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Street art is not an art movement. Street Art is a cultural phenomenon. If anything it is all art movements that have ever existed played out on the streets. It is the bringing back to a populace somewhat beleaguered and alienated by decades of overly obtuse, obscenely priced baubles for billionaires exhibited in cold clinical settings, a new art for everyone. For artists and the public, this is an historic moment. There is a multitude of ways this could play out. I encourage thoughtful vigilance.

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I know I'm coming from a different place than many young street artists. I have painted over a thousand billboards (now destroyed) not to mention hundreds of walls, of which maybe a half dozen still exist. So I have no real illusions of creating something permanent for the streets. In fact I personally enjoy seeing the walls change out. It makes for a vibrant community and an open invitation to revisit that community often. Also, a willingness to have your work painted over eases the pressure on the communities and building owners that have so generously opened their hearts up to art. Of course it hurts to see your hard work whitewashed, but it does still exist in the hearts and Instagram feeds of the community and tourists who briefly had it as a background for their lives.

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And then there are the corporate sponsors. Patronage and control is as old as the Pope telling Michelangelo whose faces to paint over on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It's as old as the Rockefellers getting punked by Diego Rivera. Is it bad that some companies, like Converse or Montana, sponsor murals? I don't think so. Where art and commerce collide, censorship can result, but that is not always the case. And it is something that a savvy artist can negotiate. In this world where everyone and everything is a brand, associations are often loaded. Take money from anyone who offers it and you're a whore. Pick and choose, and you're dating. I prefer dating. An artist actually is offering a measure of credibility in return for the ability to do a massive piece without going into massive debt, and the artist should dole that credibility out wisely.

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So this artist and former outlaw returns, exhausted, invigorated and inspired from the streets, to a truant canvas in a quiet studio, ready to create something that just might last forever.

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