Street Art and the Occupy Movement: Disturbing Categories

While Damien Hirst's For the Love of God diamond encrusted skull has come to signify
the worst of corporate greed in the Occupy movement, graffiti artist Shepard Fairey's reconfigured
"Obey" campaign signals the potential for artistic intervention. 

A few weeks ago, I began paying closer attention to the art production associated with the growing Occupy Wall Street movement. At that time, a call for participation was circulated from the protest organizers and a great deal of interest and buzz has since been generated online about how, why, and through which media forms artists can engage with furthering debate and conversations about the core ideas fuelling the movement.

Fairey's original "Obey" signs sparked a much
larger conversation about public dissent when they first
began appearing in urban spaces in the early to mid 2000's.
Observing what has emerged in the form of art projects, what strikes me as most interesting is how much the street and graffiti art community have responded and come to support the aims of the various Occupy protests in large cities around the world. At the outset of the protests in September, street artist Shepard Fairey’s "Obey" images—a project that originally juxtaposed political propaganda and corporate visual vocabulary and textual references—have become closely associated with the rich visual campaign launched by the Occupy Wall Street organizers. Not surprisingly, the use of highly mobile, quickly reproducible, and often clandestine media forms like the poster (digital and paper format) have close connections to previous protest movements (most notably Paris 1968), but also with the aims and practices of many street and graffiti artists. Also intriguing is how references to elite and top-end contemporary art practices are deliberately aligned with corporate greed and connections to the business world. I am curious what Damien Hirst makes of his diamond skull becoming the literal poster child of Wall Street evil.

For their part, street artists seem to be taking this moment as an opportunity to align their interests with the protesters. Take for example Banksy who reportedly dropped off a new sculptural work to the Occupy London protest organizers—a satirical play on the instantly recognizable Monopoly game board.  As London’s ArtLystdescribes, “The work is a 3 dimensional depiction of a Monopoly Board with Mr Money Bags portrayed as a down and out panhandler. There are large scale models of playing pieces, including a sports car (to represent bankers) and a red plastic house with a Tox tag sprayed onto it. This is a reference to not only the jailed London Graffiti artist but also to the toxic mortgages that kick started the current recession. “ Interestingly enough, the article goes on to mention that the work has already been valued at over £400,000, but it is not entirely clear whether the work will be auctioned off at some point to support the London protesters.

Banksy's Monopoly sculpture features Mr. Money Bags as a homeless beggar
(image courtesy: Demotix)
At a more grass roots level, I was quite impressed with the clever response by Occupy Oakland to the recent crackdown and then reinvigoration of their protest. They took the fences that had been used to partition out those camping at their site and turned them into an impressive sculptural installation. And across the globe in South Korea, a performance artist has formed “One-Man” (not an actual web site) attempting to fight against the protest fatigue that many fear will end the Occupy movement sooner than later. For his part, the artist Lim Ok-Sang engages people on the street in a playful and entertaining way, trying to point to the absurdity of the global economic situation. As he explains, "It is another extension of artistic expression. We are trying to create a combination of demonstrations and performances and of course to use the power of the web as much as we can."
Oakland fences used to create a sculptural work (image courtesy: ARTINFO)
Lim Ok-Sang helps counter protest fatigue through his street-level performances
(image courtesy: Reuters)
But not all street and performance contributions have been seen as completely aligned to the interests of the Occupy movement. Take for example the graphic artist turned urban street provocateur K-Guy, who also lent his support to the London folks by carpet-bombing the area near the protest site with a work that reads: “Greed: You Can Bank On It.” While certainly eye-catching and sure to create conversation, the contribution raises some questions as K-Guy prepares to open an upcoming solo show at the London West Bank Gallery. 

K-Guy's carpet bombing at the Occupy London protests
(image courtesy: Vandalog)
As street art blogger Vandalog aptly points out, there seems to be something unsettling with his timing: “He has made what is (likely) a very temporary piece, put it right next to a legitimate protest about putting people over profits, and then used photographs of the protest and his artwork in order to immediately turn around and try to sell something.” I am also left speculating whether the clearly highlighted word “Bank” is sending some kind of a message to Banksy. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but the rivalry between street artists at a time when valuations for graffiti art works are going through the roof leaves me wondering. Whatever the case, it seems that street artists have forged the closest connection with the Occupy protesters thus far.