Art Essentials: Street Art by Simon Armstrong

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Review by Liz Dexter

street art art essentials simon armstrong

The Art Essentials series aims to be engaging, accessible, authoritative, richly illustrated and expertly written and conceived, and with a bookseller and book collector who has watched the rise of street art in the public consciousness to write it and the expert designers at Thames & Hudson to produce it, you can take it as read that this hits all the boxes.

It’s an informative and colourful companion from the original tagging of the 1960s through bubble writing, scratching, stencils, stickers, tiles and huge pieces into the art galleries and collectors. Somewhere along the line it loses its transgressive character – or does it? We might remember Banksy’s self-destroying artwork, indeed mentioned here.

The book sets out its parameters early:

“This book … understands street art as an expression of the most basic human desire to stake a claim; to prove the maker’s existence; to create, craft, document and stylize; and, most simply, to connect with other people.” (p. 7)

These other people started off as other taggers and the police or transit authorities. This status makes it hard to disentangle its art from “anti-art” and the author wonders which of his subjects would claim to be artists.

Graffiti writing in the form of stylised letters appeared in the US in the 1960s, flourishing on the sides of trains and buildings. But it’s gone worldwide since then and there’s great work, for example, tracing the unique style of Sao Paolo writing as well as the commonalities. It was in the mid- to late 1990s that it began to really be called ‘art’ and to be commodified, and Armstrong explains this process well, as it moves towards ‘urban art’ which may not be painted directly on a wall, but in a gallery, hung on a wall, painted on a canvas. He remains aware of the contradictions this process presents.

One interesting chapter placed a little way into the book covers public or street art from its own inceptions in hand-print stencils in Neolithic caves, leading on to public graffiti in Pompeii: always, there’s that need to be seen. Did you know why tags are rarely three letters long? Do you know how people tag right at the top of very tall buildings? This book holds the answer.

The modern day as well as history is covered well, with the use of street art during the Arab Spring and Banksy’s and others’ political art given a focus. I loved the chapter showing exactly where in the process from penned tags to walls of beautiful images the public become involved and accepting of street art ‘pieces’ – this public audience is always considered. I also enjoyed reading about the relations some graffiti writers have had with those who seek to obliterate them, a series of interventions and their photographs by MOBSTR being a case in point. There’s also an interesting strand about how graffiti is recorded by the artists or others, and given life after its painting over; the books on the art then inspire others, of course. And then the Internet has allowed archiving and sharing to run riot.

This is a great survey and a springboard to go and investigate artists who can, for reasons of space, not be covered in a lot of detail in this book. Recommended for the street art lover or graffiti writer in your life.

A useful glossary and bibliography at the end, and an index give the book the necessaries to be a reference and teaching work as well as entertainment.

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Liz Dexter enjoys the street art of Reykjavik and Birmingham and blogs about reading and running at

Simon Armstrong, Street Art (Art Essentials). Thames & Hudson, 2019. 175 p., col. Ill., 9780500294338

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