On April 5, 2016, NPR did a story in Chicago about a (then mysterious) artist who, under cover of darkness, patched a few holes in a brick building using Legos. The artist did not sign his/her work and did not take credit for it. The city was left to wonder who was responsible. The Legos, laid out in the form of a tiny police station, were met with general approval by locals, the building’s manager, and its employees. Thanks to some investigative reporting by NPR’s Tovia Smith, the artist was later identified and came forward to claim his work. Nate Swain, a former architect turned artist, explained the Legos were meant to be a social commentary on the area’s need for a police station. Swain also claimed credit for several other unapproved art pieces throughout the city, all created with social commentary goals. In the process of tracking down the artist, Smith noted the community’s interesting reaction: “How wonderful, guerilla art has come back.” The problem is: guerilla art never left. In fact, it has become part of U.S. culture.
“Guerilla art is any art developed in public spaces — that is, ‘in the streets’ — though the term usually refers to art of an illicit nature, as opposed to government-sponsored initiatives. The term can include traditional graffiti artwork, stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting and street poster art, video projection, art intervention, and street installations. Typically, street art is used to distinguish contemporary public-space artwork from territorial graffiti, vandalism, and corporate art.” Urban Dictionary. By this definition any street art or graffiti is guerilla art and those two forms of “art” have never left us. For example, New York City experienced a graffiti epidemic from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. Public art has an even longer history. Sculptures, statues, and murals were commissioned by leaders of even the earliest civilizations, like the ancient Egyptians, for the purpose of being displayed in public. (The Sphinx is a great example of this.)
There are three major considerations when identifying whether a piece is graffiti, public art, or guerilla art. These are legality, whether or not it improves the space, and whether it is art at all. Public art, that is art pieces commissioned for the purpose of being displayed in public, are always legal (baring them violating some local zoning ordinance), improve the space in which they are placed, and considered art (though that of course is a bit subjective). On the other end of the spectrum is graffiti which, unless it’s a stylized, commissioned piece of public art, is always illegal. Whether it improves the space and is actually art is less certain. There are examples of graffiti, which are beautiful, intricate pieces that required great skill to complete and certainly improved the space where they were created.
Guerilla art is unique in that it is either graffiti or public art, both, or neither. Any graffiti done in a public space is guerilla art. All public art is “in the streets” thus always guerilla art. As observed above, someone could commission a graffiti artist to create a graffiti mural in which case it would be both public art and graffiti. However, if the art is done “in the streets,” but is not commissioned, and is not graffiti (that is not made of paint), then it is neither public art nor graffiti. Nate Swain’s Lego repair of a building falls into this category. It was not legal for Swain to place the Legos there but patching a hole with Legos is not traditional graffiti. However, like graffiti, it could still be considered vandalism — classified as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the state and is punishable by either fines, jail time, or both. Yet, Swain is not facing legal consequences. This is likely because, while illegal, his Legos are a benefit to the area — it actually repairs a broken building — and are widely considered art.
It is important to note that there is another possible copyright pitfall in Swain’s work: the use of Legos. Legos are a copyrighted and trademarked toy and the Lego Group has been known to restrict the use of their logos and other copyrighted or trademarked products. Only about six months prior to Swain’s Lego remodel the brand had refused to fill a bulk order placed by a foreign artist. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, intended to use Legos in a display he was doing in Australia. Lego refused to supply the bulk order because the display Weiwei planned to create was political in nature. The representative who rejected the sale held that the company’s policy was not to allow their Legos to be used for political displays. After this pronouncement was met with a fierce backlash from the international community Lego changed their policy. They have stopped inquiring as to what the customer intends to do with the Legos altogether.
Today, any given city center has at least a few commissioned art pieces on display outside, and even if the city wished otherwise, there is a strong presence of graffiti in those same places. Over the last few years there has been a visible shift away from viewing guerilla art as vandalism and toward viewing it as true art. In fact, many major cities (like Detroit) around the world now have special tours that guide visitors to the city’s best street art and these tours often include graffiti! Take the street art tour in Berlin for example; they not only show tourists the best graffiti in the city, they take them back to a workshop where they can learn how to create their own graffiti! There are even art galleries, like the Museum of the City of New York, which have started showing guerilla art in their shows including pictures of graffiti and public art. Far from having gone away, guerilla art has in fact become an integral part of American and global culture and from the looks of things — it’s here to stay.
by Jessica Coonrod