Subgenres in Street Art: Where does Mistakism fit in?

Janet Martin

Whether it is in science or art, people like categories. We enjoy putting things into little genres and subgenres, priding in the old adage, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

The practice, however, is often not as easy as the saying would suggest. As Carolyn R. Miller said in her 1984 essay, “Genre as Social Action,” from the Quarterly Journal of Speech, “genres have been defined by similarities in strategies or forms in the discourses, by similarities in audience, by similarities in modes of thinking, by similarities in rhetorical situations. The diversity among these definitions presents a problem.”

In other words, the term “genre” is so open and fluid that any genres created are likewise open and fluid. Pieces of art, in particular, are difficult to categorize based on genre distinctions, and the rising style known as street art is no different. According to Ontario-based street artist Patrick Thompson, “I don’t like categories, I find them limiting. Art as a word is already limiting. You can write endless amounts of these on people’s art and you still won’t really get it.”

What Separates Street Art from Graffiti?

Nvate Mistakism by Patrick Thompson street art graffiti

This is an example of Banksy’s work. Credit: Banksy website

Street art, in general, is a relatively new genre, and already there are issues with its classification. “People want to distinguish between street art and hip-hop graffiti, but there are so many things happening and I think that’s a lost cause,” Thompson said. “There’s this really nice middle ground between what you call graffiti and what you call street art and people who embrace and love both.”

Stylistically, there is not a specific set of rules that cleanly separate all graffiti from street art—that is the reason there is so much debate on the issue. While it is true that artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey do not create art that looks like the names and gang signs often called graffiti, their art is not the universal style. Some artists use color and lines in ways reminiscent of what is traditionally considered graffiti.

Street artist INSA incorporates text, and the apparent simplicity of his work would initially remind an observer of traditional graffiti. However, he uses motion and illusion to give his work depth, making this distinction less clear. “I think there is great work happening that looks like what we think graffiti looks like,” Thompson said.

What is Mistakism?

As difficult as it is to define a “street art” genre, it is even more difficult to create street art subgenres. Thompson himself has a distinct “genre,” but even he admits it is not a simple matter of style.

“I like all things,” he said. “I write things, I look at architecture. I don’t want to be any one thing. People look at my stuff and they [ask], ‘oh is that mistakism’ and I say ‘no, it’s just art.’” Thompson does not go into a project trying to recreate his assigned genre—which he calls “mistakism”—he just creates.

“I think mistakism is a way of relaxing and allowing some spirit to come through you and not play God,” he said. Rather than define what the artist creates, the genre of mistakism refers more to the mindset of the creator. Mistakism is “about being a kid; you didn’t think about what you are creating and enjoy the process,” Thompson said. “It can come out in any which way. And maybe for some people that head space is somewhere you go to play with ideas before you go to a final result.”

Nvate Mistakism by Patrick Thompson street art graffiti

This is an example of Patrick Thompson’s work. Credit: Patrick Thompson

Given this definition, nearly any work of any style can fall under this genre category so long as the artist is in the right mindset. “It’s about freeing the mind and working with a curiosity and whimsical youthful spirit,” said Thompson. “Some musicians go this way—blues musicians—and there’s a whole genre of film in this style, and some writers write like this. It’s about going into the subconscious and trying to peel away the layers, not worrying about what people think and just making something.”

Establishing a set of subgenres within the world of street art is convoluted because of the nature of those genres. Since the emphasis is on the process and the mentality of the artists, it is much more difficult to pin down “mistakism” pieces; it is less about the physical finished product and, therefore, not based on something easily viewed and defined.

Nvate Mistakism by Patrick Thompson street art graffiti

This is an example of Patrick Thompson’s work. Credit: Patrick Thompson

Although so much street art is great and can fit under this genre, it is not fair to divide them up—including some while excluding other—based on simple physical things like color, content, or culture. Thompson openly admits to feeling as if something is lacking within the physical world. “The physical world has been created by these robotic adults and I feel like this youthfulness needs to be incorporated everywhere, in architecture, politics, art, and music,” Thompson said. “If you know you are in the right place, your work will come from that place. I don’t care what the finished result is. I love to see how people create.”

With art, so much is dependent on the mind of the creator; it’s about expressing things that are not easily expressed in the physical world and attempting to create a viewable manifestation. Because so much is up for interpretation, trying to create solid, definable genres is not a simple task. The words exist, a viewer can call a work “graffiti” or “mistakism” if they really want, but it is rarely a matter of putting the work under a heading—artists simply don’t work that way. Thompson puts it well, “I’m just doing what I do. I’m not trying to polish everything; I leave pieces. The way I work, people see the steps that have been taken.”

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