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Urban Folk Art

Notes towards a history of graffiti….

Graffiti has been around for millennia; it has been recorded as far back as the Sumerians (1500 and 1800 BC). But in the last few decades of the last century it suddenly changed. One of the reasons for this change was developments in technology but spray paint cans and marker pens doesn’t explain all the changes and rapid growth of graffiti/street art. Lee Newman invented the felt-tipped marking pen in 1910 but it was not until the early 1960s that they were refined or common. Aerosol spray paint was invented in 1949 Edward Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois. Other reasons for the change in graffiti are best explained by a re-examination of folk art in an urban world.

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In trying to position street art in art history, it is not useful to understand it as the feral younger brother of pop art, as it is a kind of urban folk art. Folk art is often ignored in art history except when folk traditions and outsider artists influence modern and contemporary art.

Is it realistic for folk art in the urban context have to remain un-influenced by academic or fine art? Is it realistic for all folk art to remain the activity of amateurs? Is it realistic to expect that all folk art will be cosy, apolitical and conservative? Or is more realistic that urban folk art to attempt to actively engage in trying to change their world. Urban folk art is not outsider art; the artists are as well informed about art as they want to be. They have access to the same technology and materials as professionally trained artists. Due to this crossover of fine art ideas, materials and technology, urban folk art can be artistically progressive and even avant-garde.

Consider the single most important development in the visual arts in the last century – collage. Decoupage was a popular activity for upper and middle-class women in the late 19th Century. Commercially produced images for decoupage were available in the late 19th Century and these were cut and pasted on dressing and fire screens. It is a short step from decoupage to collage or photomontage. It should not be surprising that a young woman would make progressive artistic collages. That woman was the Berlin Dadaist artist Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) whose photomontage and collage art used images from magazines.

Perhaps Dada should be considered, in part, as a radical urban folk art movement. Dada emerged from the home printing press movement of the 1890s (L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was an early home printing press enthusiast). Although there were trained artists in the Dadaists there many of Dadaists were neither trained as artists nor went on to a career as a professional artists like Richard Hulsenbeck was a medical student at the time he joined the Zurich Dadaists, he went on to practice psychiatry.

Stencils on back of a truck

Other urban folk art movements followed including Mail Art and punk. Mail Art movement worked with a folk art tradition of decorating envelopes, examples of which can be seen from throughout postal history. To this tradition the Mail Art added an artistic and a utopian intention that the future of art would not be high-end art objects but multiple edition art mailed to insiders. Punk took to the streets with bands using stencils and spray paint for publicity.

There are many folk art/craft elements in street art and graffiti from automotive spray painting to yarn bombing. The interior decorating craze for stencils in the 1990s lead into Melbourne’s street art stencils in 2000, it was a familiar craft technique. Street art and graffiti emerged as an urban folk art movement and due to the internet became the most international and visible urban folk art movement so far.

Yarn bombed bicycle Collingwood

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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