The first impression one gets of Google Street Art Project is just how massive a gallery it truly is. There are hundreds of street artists and thousands of wall and street canvases from all over the world. The gallery can be viewed from many different angles: by geography, by artist, by theme or style. The images are all high resolution with scroll bars and zoom for exploration. It is almost too much to take in all at once. The Google Cultural Institute has managed to bring the outsider world of street art to everyone’s desktop.
Street art often shocks the viewer with its incongruities of form, as well as its playfulness and irreverence toward more established forms of visual expression such as in commercial art. Words and letters take on powerful visual qualities. Icons of popular culture are often treated satirically or playfully. Political subtexts are often discarded in favor of themes of fantasy and horror, violence and peace, thoughtfulness, meditation. Street artists are oftentimes politically neutral but that does not stop viewers from adding their own political or social interpretations. In detailed compositions, the viewer is often tasked with sifting through a melange of subtle meanings, like a dreamscape, where images both frightful and comforting assault the eye. Street art, because of its transitory nature, and the impermanence of its medium, often has the semblance of a fleeting dream, or nightmare.
The artistic backgrounds and motivations of street artists are often misunderstood. It is often assumed street artists are poor or even homeless amateur artists. Their attention to walls and blank spaces in out of the way places of the urban landscape suggests to some they are drifters who are unable to attain credibility in the salons of accomplished artists. The truth is, however, that many street painters are accomplished artists with studios of their own and international fans. Some have formal training, such as Kookoo in Manila, Phillipines, while others have developed a large international following, such as Bastardilla in Bogota, Columbia or Phlegm in London, England. What unites street artists worldwide is a need to paint, on whatever canvas they can find, and to explore the medium, the wall, the corner, the street sign, with their imaginations. Like any practiced artistic style, there are beginners and there are more experienced artists. Street painting is no longer the outcast art it once was, but the nature of its compositions and the medium on which it is practiced often give it an outsider quality which is cultivated by its practitioners.
It is difficult to encompass the massive gallery of the Google Street Art Project in a single review, however some cultural affinities do stand out when comparing national styles as practiced in large urban areas. Street art is often found in official locations sanctioned by city councils and urban planners, such as the Calçada da Glória in Lisbon, Portugal. But most often, street art and graffiti are found in unofficial, transitory places which street artists have taken over as their own. The long blank wall of the Hospital Júlio de Matos on the Rua das Murtas in Lisbon, for instance, has been an unofficial forum for Portuguese street artists for years.
Like the Lisbon hospital wall, the abandoned factory at Jackson Avenue and Crane Street in Queens has been a forum for street art in New York City. Google Street Art Project has compositions by Christian Cortes, Meres One, and many others. Horror, fantasy and psychedelic themes predominate, together with New York style geometric word art. American stylings of street word art are found in urban areas across the United States and are often credited with influencing similar street graffiti across the world.
Google Street Art Project showcases many street art compositions in South America, but those of São Paulo, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Bogotá, Columbia stand out. São Paulo street art tends to more naturalistic scenes of wood and fish. Animals predominate, oftentimes metamorphosed into caricature or scenes of Dali-esque surrealism. Street art in Buenos Aires is some of the most expressive and accomplished in all of the Americas. Compositions range from highly detailed surrealism to boutique-style graphic art. Buenos Aires street artists seem to find more expression in playful geometricism and realistic portraiture than in dark horror. In Bogotá, Columbia, street art surrealism often mixes with scenes of horror, wealth and violence. The compositions of Desconocido and Bastardilla, a name which means ‘italic’ in Spanish, have been internationally recognized.
European forms of street art are as varied as those in Buenos Aires. French forms in central Paris are more studied than their South or North American counterparts. Parisian street artists often play in three dimensions, outfitting rooms, corners and alleyways with installations of artifacts and paint. Many French street artists have moved indoors due to the policing of their exterior compositions. The result is a world of art along the Seine which is hidden from most eyes. To the North East of the center of Paris, along the Rue Jules Auffet, exterior compositions in a New York style dot alleyways and abandoned walls. On the other side of the channel, English street art in East London most resembles the products of their artistic cousins in Buenos Aires. Brick Lane and its surrounding streets are the unoffical forum. Playfulness, again, mixes with surrealistic images and caricatures, often in the manner of Monty Python. Of special note is the dark-themed work of Phlegm which is reminiscent of Edward Gorey. Google Street Art Project showcases his exhibit, The Bestiary, at the Howard Griffin Gallery in London.
Thousands more street compositions await the viewer of the Google Cultural Institute’s Street Art Project. The massive gallery can overwhelm viewers with its breadth and scope, but return visitors to this strange and wonderful world of outsider art will certainly be rewarded.
By Steve Killings