Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Street Art Conference Wrap-Up: Pt. 2


One issue that kept coming up throughout the conference was the Illegality Condition for Street Art–whether or not works of street art require there to be (in fact if not also in belief) some (regularly enforced) law against the creation of such.

Here’s what I took away from the various debates about illegality.

1. If there is an illegality condition on Street Art, it will most plausibly be had by Street Art (Form) rather than Street Art (Content)–See previous post on Two Kinds of Street Art.

2. Any worthwhile illegality condition won’t be grounded in mere illegality per se. Instead, the illegality condition must be in terms of what the relevant illegality reflects, speaks to, stands for, or purports to track: i.e., the attitudes and beliefs of the lawmakers and law enforcers, especially those concerning the relationship and tensions between public and private spheres, community rights and the proprietary rights of those outside it, private ownership and public or communal reclamations thereof, etc.

3. Illegality in the above sense seems necessary not only to capture the transgressive nature of some Street Art but also to underwrite the way in which (the Chackal triumvirate of) risk, danger, and audacity (at least historically) figure in the critical appraisal thereof. Moreover, substantively grounded illegality as opposed to that of mere illicitness looks able to do this in a way that captures the important distinction between Street Art and that of Public Art, where the latter comes with an at least implicit assumption of being sanctioned, authorized, or otherwise permitted.

4. Illegality should likely play a substantial if not central role for most if not all relevant overlapping areas of cultural/social/political importance (e.g., race, gender, class, etc.).


  1. I'm really glad you raised this! That's one of the things that puzzled me about Riggle (2010).

    I take it illegality is supposed to be what separates street art from public art in the streets. But I wondered why couldn't the condition be something nearby — I call it “unsanctionality” but others think this is ugly.

    That is, the point isn't really to do with the law, but whether it's sanctioned by the relevant authorities, which can include political entities and, as you note in (4), other social products. The law is just one way of sanctioning or unsanctioning an activity, but there are many others. I take it this is all in agreement with your (2) as well.

  2. Yeah, I think broader notions like “unsanctionality” also have a tendency to either miss or just gloss over the very serious nature of anti-graffiti laws and the very clear and present dangers posed by their heavily racialized, classist, and often brutal enforcement by police. These often go hand in hand with other similar laws like drug loitering laws which for certain communities effectively turn all public spaces into potential arrest zones.

  3. I enjoyed reading through your summaries, Christy.

    I want to like the distinction between 'form' and 'content' but I struggle with it. It seems to me that much of what we appreciate as Street Art because of the content are really works that belong within other categories (e.g., Public Art > mural, sculpture, installation…). It seems to conflate things a bit.

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