In trying to explain street art it is not enough simply to provide a history of graffiti. Graffiti and ‘street art’ are part of contemporary D.I.Y. (do it yourself) culture that includes zines, music bands, fashion, raves and art parties. A D.I.Y. culture is a culture that is not inherited by tradition, it is not imported and is not purchased off the shelf. It is a culture requires some assembly (often cut and paste culture) or modification and interactive participation. It is hardly really a culture, but a proto-culture, a mutant culture, a dynamic evolving culture.
D.I.Y. culture is in direct competition with traditional culture, with mass produced consumer culture. It is engaged in a political-cultural battle with the powers that support traditional culture. For this reason it is frequently demonized, criminalized and otherwise suppressed because of the threat that it represents to traditional culture.
In the past great art followed the great empires; art followed the money and served as a symbol of power. It was the Dadaists who made a break from creating culture to serve homicidal empires and creating a D.I.Y. culture complete with zines, collages, fashion and haircuts. The Nazi’s and World War II cut short Europe’s early D.I.Y. culture; Hitler’s identification of the Dadaists as a danger to German culture is the first of many concerted attempts to eliminate D.I.Y. culture. The post-war baby boomers rediscovered the Dadaists and D.I.Y. culture flourished again.
D.I.Y. culture is a democratic culture, in that it is from the people and by the people. D.I.Y. culture is not, necessarily popular, it may even be an unpopular and minority taste but that doesn’t make it undemocratic. The distinction is that D.I.Y. culture is democratic rather than popularist; it is individual freedom of expression and opportunity rather than the rule of majority to praise or censor.
Democracy may appear difficult to reconcile with art and good taste, as much popular taste is definitively bad. Contemporary fashion is a good example of the democratization without a loss of style or taste. For example, the distinction between the classes in fashion is not as apparent it was a century ago. Society is no longer so concerned with suits and ties.
In most countries that call themselves democratic freedom of speech is effectively silenced by media ownership. The Chinese ‘democracy wall’ is an experiment that has not been repeated until blogging. In this respect some graffiti is a rebellion, an attempt to covertly exercise free speech. Graffiti groups, like Buga-up’s anti-tobacco advertising vandalism in the 1970s were a direct attack against the power of corporate advertising.
D.I.Y. culture should be distinguished from pop culture, in that pop culture is manufactured and popularist. But there are many points of confusion as D.I.Y. culture references pop culture, for example in stencil art, in lyrics and collage material. And D.I.Y. culture may become pop culture, for example, hip-hop or punk.