Street Art as Social Media: Engaging People to Take Its Message and Pass it on

By Janet Martin

These days, most people are pretty familiar with street art in some sense. If they can’t name specific artists, they at least know the central points of the art or vandalism debate. They can also tell you about Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media site from Pinterest to Instagram. It’s also not that unusual for people to think of the two working together—a fair amount of artists use social media to share their very temporary work with fans. What fewer people think about is the way street art itself works as a form of social media.

How Does Street Art Become Social Media?

Mathew Lincez, the co-head of design research and resident futurist at Idea Futures, has lead discussions and written articles on the subject. His talk at Ignite Toronto can be seen online.

“Art can become ‘media’ in that the audience or others can easily capture/consume an original piece; use it, remix it and/or re-distribute it through various channels, mediums [and so on],” said Lincez. “The art becomes media when other ideas and opinions begin to live on it as a medium, over it, or through it.”

And Lincez is not alone in this viewpoint. In her September 2011 article for the Huffington Post, Marni Salup, founder and CEO of the Salup Group, made the same connection, stating, “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.”

Nvate street art graffiti by Shepard Fairey Banksy Mathew Lincez TR853-1 social media

Credit: Banksy website

By putting their work on the street, street artists like Banksy and TR853-1 are allowing for the same level of interactivity present in popular forms of social media. According to Lincez, “[Street art] becomes interactive when the audience can respond to these messages on the same stage. For me, the ‘subversive’ act of responding in-situ—a la sticker, marker, spray paint, wheat pasting, or digital hack [and so on]—is really about stage crashing, of making it interactive. It’s about establishing a more public and contextualized dialogue within our shared spaces.”

Since street art, by its nature, engages people and the environment around them, it increases the level of interaction, turning it into something akin to the Facebook wall or Twitter feed. In fact, some of the artwork literally demands outside influences. Lincez mentions crossword puzzles on the side of buildings and skateboarders use the shadows of certain landmarks to create a full picture.

Street Art can be More Collaborative than Online Social Media

Street art does differ in some cases though. According to Lincez, street art is actually more open and collaborative than online social media. “Social media (in the digital sense) isn’t accessible to everyone, despite its popularity, the means of accessing it are quite different—like you’ll need a ‘smart phone’ or a PC or some sort of device—and an internet connection,” he said. “You’ll also need the ‘app’ and you’ll have to agree to the terms and conditions implied by all. Street media, in contrast, does not require these things.”

Nvate street art graffiti by Shepard Fairey Banksy Mathew Lincez TR853-1 social media

Credit: TR853-1

In other words, you can’t interact on Facebook until you get a Facebook, but anyone walking down the street can see a Banksy original and become a part of that community. On a similar note, moving from the Internet—which limits exposure to people with a connection—to the street—open to everyone—allows for greater audience engagement.

“The built environment is crowded with images and opportunities to occupy other spaces” said Lincez. “Producers understand the value/importance of proper placement and also understand which audience is more likely to notice it…this is where the game is played. Interloping on someone else’s attention space and/or usurping the power of their message/identity is all part of this interactivity, this dialogue.”

Street Art and Advertising Similarities

If you ask Lincez, he will define social media as anything “open and fair for consumption/expression.” If it is open to the ideas and interactions of various people, it is social media. Street media—in an attempt to McLuhanize it, as Lincez puts it—refers to “a medium accessible at ‘street level’ [and street art] is the message or idea living on, or occupying that medium.” This means that, in theory, a billboard or outdoor advertisement can constitute as street art.

Nvate street art graffiti by Shepard Fairey Banksy Mathew Lincez TR853-1 social media

Credit: Shepard Fairey

The biggest difference between a billboard and a Shepard Fairey work, however, is that level of interactivity. Most people do not want other people writing all over their fancy and expensive billboards—that’s why artists like Fairey and Bansky are sometimes seen as vandals as opposed to artists.

“We’ve been conditioned to consume the messages advertised to us by marketers through ‘street level media’ (like posters and billboards) without having the ability to respond to them in-situ,” Lincez said.

It is because street art allows this level of outside contact that it jumps above the world of the poster and the Tweet and into the world of art. Sure the political messages help, but by allowing people to engage with the work, street artists are opening up a level of communication that sets their work in its own little niche—street media.

Lincez even acknowledges that there are some similarities between the two. “A lot of the techniques behind mass media marketing have been adopted and leveraged by artists to deliver similar, sometimes better, results. At the same time I’d say the use of image/icons that are familiar to us—thanks to mass marketers—and also the languages we’ve shared as a culture—symbols, icons [and so on,]—are at our disposal for efficiently communicating with one another. And when used correctly, they help us get up to that speed.”

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