Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Paper is cheap, and other lessons from street art

with 2 comments

When you come right down to it, graffiti is the most fundamental form of self-publishing there is. Long before Twitter, WordPress, or Amazon’s digital publishing arm, street artists managed to express themselves on the sides of buildings, fences, and city curbs, and the raw materials couldn’t have been cheaper: paint, paper, wheatpaste. At its best, the anonymity and accessibility of the form encouraged experimentation, radicalism, and resourcefulness—as exhilaratingly documented in Banksy’s great Exit Through the Gift Shop—as well as a refreshing lack of inhibition. As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker puts it in a recent profile of the street artist JR:

He rarely expresses doubt about his art; paper and glue are cheap, and it is easy to experiment with them rather than to agonize before executing a judgment.

In some ways, then, street art stands as a rebuke to those of us who are always seeking perfection in our own work. There’s no such thing as a “finished” piece of street art: it’s a work in progress, defined as much by the riskiness of its execution as the visible result, and it’s only complete when it succeeds in arousing a reaction in its audience. Even more importantly, it’s a reminder of how little an artist really needs. No matter what your medium of choice, the basic tools are readily at hand, if you have enough ingenuity to use them. Paper, or its equivalent, is cheap for everyone. And the best street art recognizes this. In the most literal way possible, it’s about throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks.

The trouble with street art, of course, is the trouble with all forms of self-publishing: the work of a few good artists can be hard to find in a sea of meaningless graffiti. Most graffiti, after all, is ugly; most self-published works, when you consider the full range of material both in print and online, are unreadable. At first glance, bad graffiti might seem like the greater eyesore, since there’s no way of looking away from it in your own neighborhood, but graffiti, at least, has certain barriers to entry—notably its illegality—that discourage most of us from risking it. No such barriers exist on the Internet, and I dare you to find a city wall as terrifying as the comments section of, say, Yahoo News, which is really just graffiti in digital form.

So what’s the lesson here? There’s bad street art and good street art; bad self-published novels and good self-published novels; and bad comment threads and, believe it or not, good comment threads. As Theodore Sturgeon famously pointed out, the bad will always outweigh the good, in similar proportions, no matter what the medium. That’s the price we pay for making any means of expression universally accessible—and rightly so. Graffiti is just the most visible form of a process that takes place in every form of communication: a vast amount of experimentation, imitation, and outright trash that somehow results in a handful of viable artists and communities, whether or not we know their names. So if you think you have something to contribute, you should. Because paper is cheap. And we need you.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2011 at 10:16 am

2 Responses

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  1. Amazing work on the walls of the houses…

    Subhakar Das

    December 28, 2011 at 11:21 am

  2. Agreed! You can see more of it here:


    December 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

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