Why Are So Many Street Artists Against The Idea Of Merchandise?

Phlegm piece in Kentucky Here at Banksytshirts.org, we’re big fans of street art in general, not just of Banksy’s work. One need only take a cursory glance at our Facebook feed to see all the street art photographs that we share of other graffiti artists worldwide.  We love it.

There are so many talented artists out there, whose work is often seen only in photographs on the internet, by residents of the locale in which the artwork is created, or by wealthy hardcore art tourists financially able to travel the world to see these pieces in person.

Banksy Umbrella Girl Nola Attempted Theft

Attempted Theft of Banksy’s Umbrella Girl Nola

Obviously in the case of Banksy and a select few other notable artists, original canvas pieces and even entire walls containing their original artwork can be bought for enormous sums of money, with or without the consent of the artist, and even in some cases without the consent of the people that own the wall in question.

With such a restricted audience, one would expect that street artists would be eager to pursue other means of showing off their art to a wider crowd, especially if it would mean that they could earn money in the process. Merchandise such as t-shirts, hoodies, and even prints of their work would seem an obvious way to show their artwork to a greater number of people.

After all, t-shirts are essentially walking canvases – art galleries on legs – that can put an artist’s work directly in plain view of everyone the wearer comes into contact with.

We managed to obtain email addresses for a number of graffiti artists, some well-known, others possibly only known to hardcore fans of street art, who we have contacted with regard to the possibility of selling their artwork on merchandise.  Those that returned our emails have (actually very politely) each said the same thing, “Sorry, I’m not into merchandise”.

TDestroy Capitalism - unknown artisthere are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

First of all, many street artists have created work on someone else’s private property, without the permission of the owner. This could lead the artist to believe that by admitting that they are Street Artist X to a company like ours and allowing us to advertise their artwork on merchandise, that they are more likely to be found out by the authorities and be charged with vandalism.

Saul Williams - The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust

Saul Williams – The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust – released as a free download “or voluntary donation”

Another possibility is the fashion of anti-consumerism.  With so many evils of the capitalist world being perpetuated by large corporations, it is no surprise that so many artists perform their own protests using their own art forms.

Street artists aren’t alone in this.  A number of high profile bands and musicians have in recent years created waves in the music industry by giving away their music for free on the internet rather than using record labels to sell their work, though many of these are already making a living wage from previous releases or other projects, and few and far between are the bands and musicians that flat-out refuse to sell t-shirts on principle.

A cynic might come to the conclusion that giving away the music for free is nothing but a publicity stunt that would lead to higher sales of the artist’s albums and merchandise in the long run.

KLF burn a million quid

KLF burn a million quid

But money isn’t everything, especially to an artist.  Indeed, in 1994 music group and performance artists KLF burned a million pounds in cash – their last million pounds of the money they had made from their music success.

A number of street artists do make a living wage from selling their original canvas-based works, though; Charlie Uzzell Edwards aka Pure Evil for one, who not only sells his original works, he also runs a successful art gallery in London.

ROA Rattlesnake and rats, Mexico 2012

ROA’s Rattlesnake And Rats, Mexico 2012

Perhaps many of the well-known street artists also lead respectable other-lives by day. After all, some of them seem to be able to afford to travel all over the world to create their art in new places.

This costs money.  The sort of money that one wouldn’t expect to be available to the average street thug with a can of spray paint.

Could it be the case that many of the world’s greatest anonymous street artists are in fact highly successful career-driven people, that slink away from high society dinner-parties at night to don balaclavae and become more exciting alter-ego graffitiist super-villains?

Banksy v Team Robbo Fishing For Street CredAnother possibility is the artist’s image. By allowing their artwork to appear on merchandise, they are perhaps worried about being seen as bowing to “the man”, thereby reducing their credibility in return for increasing their visibility.

This would seem to indicate, however, that the artist may be more concerned with how they are perceived by their peers than they are about their artwork giving pleasure to a wider audience.

unknown artistIf peer respect is genuinely the sole reason for them creating art, then it is hard to argue against this, but presumably at least some street artists became artists through a love of creating art, and not because it made them look cool to their friends?

Of those that make art for art’s sake, perhaps their distaste for merchandise is related to the purity of their chosen art form; like the musical purist who feels that the frequencies of sound that are lost during conversion to mp3 format spoils the overall feel of their music, the artists may feel that reduction of their wall-sized analogue masterpiece to a ten-inch-wide digitally-reproduced 600dpi t-shirt print takes away the nuances of their work in a similar manner?

Banksy Stop And Search Destroyed

Formerly Banksy’s Stop And Search

Many street artists talk about their love of their chosen medium – that the transient nature of street art allows them to create something fresh and then gradually watch it decay as taggers take turns defacing it until another artist decides to use the space to create a whole new piece.

Seeing how long the piece lasts before this happens can be regarded as a measurement of the success of the piece and of how well-received it was by other street artists.

For some fans of art, though, the loss of a masterpiece is a tragedy, regardless of the medium.  Creating art in a more permanent manner allows it to be enjoyed by new audiences long after a street art piece might have faded, been defaced, destroyed, removed or painted over.

Mona Lisa GraffitiIf Beethoven’s symphonies had been created on walls in the streets instead of on paper, billions of people would have been deprived of the opportunity to hear them and marvel at his genius.

If the Mona Lisa had been painted on the side of a tavern in Florence, da Vinci may well have been forgotten by history.

Would this make their works “better” art?

Would either of them be less talented for having so much less of an audience?  Are longevity and popularity necessarily watermarks of illegitimacy or of “selling out”?

In a transitory medium like street art, there is effectively no scope for those that are too far “ahead of their time”, as they stand little chance of their work lasting long enough to be recognised as such.

Would music and art have evolved faster if works were completely destroyed after a few years, or would new composers and artists end up recreating clichés endlessly, never able to learn the lost lessons of their predecessors – not only those that were popular but also those that broke the moulds of the mainstream? Surely future generations of artists can only benefit from being able to witness the works of the great artists that came before them?

Let us know how you feel by posting a comment, either here or on our Facebook page.

And if you’re a talented street artist, well-known or not, that would be interested in selling merchandise with your artwork on, please get in touch.  Your global gallery awaits.

Thanks for reading.

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