Art for the People: Google's Street Art Project

Image provided by Do Art Foundation

Street art exists in spaces the public inhabits on a daily basis. It's an accessible form; it's the art that is all around us. The Google Street Art Project has created an online platform for researching, viewing, and learning about street art around the world. It's perhaps the strongest manifestation of its efforts to document and make culture around the world available to everyone.

In 2011, The Google Art Project was launched, which enabled folks to virtually enter museums via their computers to view high-resolution images of artworks. A selection of museums partnered with Google to make this initiative a reality and it was not long before the original list of 17 museums grew to over a hundred. A combination of these efforts has manifested in the Street Art Project where Google is attempting to record and document the art happening in alleys and neighborhoods around the world. It can be argued that this endeavor will yield greater visibility and involvement because these works are not protected in museums and it will elongate what is normally a short life span.

Guest testing out Google Street Art Project at their L.A. launch party. | Photo: Badir McCleary
Guest testing out Google Street Art Project at their L.A. launch party. | Photo: Badir McCleary

The importance of documentation cannot be understated for street art. Whether it's graffiti or street art, preservation tactics are not often used and a few years is considered an eternity for many works (let alone 24 hours for some). A sentiment that Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles echoes: "One of the ways future generations will learn about richly diverse Los Angeles is through the preservation of our history of public expression...we have to recognize that much of what we see in public -- whether it be graffiti, graffiti art or full scale murals -- will most likely disappear at some point."

An excellent example of a cultural landmark that needed documentation in the graffiti and street art world was referred to as 5Pointz, a name that references the five boroughs of New York coming together as one to this specific location that acted as a center for graffiti and street art activity. The Long Island City destination was an abandoned factory that served as a canvas for thousands of artists. In 2013 the graffiti mecca was demolished to make room for the development of condominiums. The loss was felt through the community, but aspects of the building were captured digitally and Google has created an online collection along with some commentary to fill in the rich history of the space.

"12 DÍAS" by CHEKO, Calle Horno de San Agustín, Granada, Spain

The unstable environments and the surprise of happening upon an artwork are also part of the joy of experiencing context specific work like street art. The same technology used for Google's Street View technology that stitches together still image of streets is used to allow further access to locations and provide a better framework for viewing. A feature that was available at the Google launch party for its inclusion of Loa Angeles within its thick portfolio of cities around the globe.

Since Google Street Art has surfaced in June of 2014, they have published over 10,000 images in their archives. An ongoing attempt to map these images from around the world, it is the most organized documentation process to date and could serve as a vital research tool for scholars interesting in the global community of street art. There is a lot of potential for cross-fertilization of ideas and the ability to find information more quickly and efficiently.

Image of Berlin Wall Project provided by The Wende Museum
Image of Berlin Wall Project provided by The Wende Museum

At first blush, the influence of cultural organizations is felt quite heavily. Google aimed to partner with important institutions in order to gain access to their archives. Much like the museum partnership model, organizations like The Street Art Brokerage Firm, The Wende Museum, The Do Art Foundation, and The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles have all pledged their support of the project. However, the surprisingly wonderful aspect of the street art project is that individuals can also upload their own photos and add them to the reservoir of imagery. Photographer Chuck Self appreciates this aspect because it allows him "... to get work out there for a much larger audience to see." A welcome and philosophically sound idea since this is how many individuals experience these works by snapping pictures and revisiting them later or sharing via social media.

Copyright issues abound when working with museums and artist's estates but it's not hard to imagine that the street art project is a much easier subject to document. Most of the artists are living and the continued exposure only benefits their careers. Street artist Andrea LaHue aka Random Act, was involved with organizing a few online exhibition for the Google Street Art Project and feels very positive about the platform and sees it as furthering the exposure of artists and "...elevating the art form in a whole new way." The Pasadena Museum of California Art also organized an online exhibition that focuses on Kenny Scharf's Kosmic Krylon Garage from 2004 in their parking garage. The images are high quality and the navigation is simple and easy to use.

Image of Kenny Scharf provided by Pasadena Museum of California Art
Image of Kenny Scharf provided by Pasadena Museum of California Art

At the end of the day, the online delivery via Google is more appropriate for street art than any other art form. The efforts to document museum pieces are plagued with problems despite the ideals of the Institute to make art accessible. The influence of social media and the digital world has been hugely influential on street artists expanding their audience and is part of the reason it has exploded in popularity. Google recognizes this unique quality and even has a section for GIF Art where street artists have utilized public walls as a setting for creating simple animation. These artists must paint imagery several times over to produce a digital work that only lives online.

The result of the Google Street Art Project is a collection of images that range from the very poor to some of the most impressive to date. The curation of these collections could be improved but it's also part of the democracy of the streets and the main differentiator between the carefully curated walls of our museums. Much like a Google image search, you must trove through poor examples before you find your prize.

But the reward is worth the search.



Further Reading on Street Art in L.A.:

Man One With One Man's Goal: Make Graffiti Legit
Graffiti artist Man One works to develop a code of the street between art and commerce in Los Angeles.

Uncovered Olympic Glories: Murals Restoration on the 101 Freeway
Willie Herrón III, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles' official restorer, and his assistant Melody Betancourt, are working on one of the city's prized possessions: Frank Romero's "Going to the Olympics."

A Homecoming for Kenny Scharf
The bubblegum aesthetic of Kenny Scharf has surfaced on the street art of Los Angeles, the hometown of the artist that is largely associated with New York.


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