Google Street Art Project: ‘We are not the mural police, we are the mural conservancy’

Shepard Fairey is one of the street artists supporting Google’s project. Photograph: PR
Shepard Fairey is one of the street artists supporting Google’s project. Photograph: PR

What some call vandalism, others call street art. Where some see criminals, others see outlaw poets, heroes of free speech taking their work directly to the people, bypassing galleries and auction houses, and democratizing the relationship between art and the public. That outlaw freedom jumped time and space last week when the Google Street Art Project announced it was doubling its worldwide database by adding 5000 new images.

Launched in June 2014, the street art database features roughly 260 virtual exhibits from 34 countries where you can browse art or hear guided tours. More than 50 organizations partnered on the project, southern California contributors being Wende Museum in Culver City, Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.

Offering the best the street art world has to offer, the Google collection is an obvious boon for fans of the medium and benefits artists by giving them worldwide exposure. But cataloging, quantifying and curating run contrary to the street art ethos adhered to by artists whose ephemeral messages admonish and amuse people around the world.

“We are not the mural police, we are the mural conservancy,” says Isabel Rojas-Williams of the non-profit Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, one of Google’s partners on the project. She defines a mural as “anything stuck to a wall that is a monumental piece of art”, an inherently judgmental definition, though Rojas-Williams chafes at the idea of curating.

“We really are not picking and choosing,” she contends. “My staff and volunteers and I get into my car, each of us with a camera, and we’ll go through the neighborhoods taking photos. Now we can have over 3,000, but unfortunately, for lack of finances and lack of manpower, we can’t put them in there [Google] unless we have the information, name of the mural, the artist, the exact location and maybe biography. But we are very fair about everybody having an opportunity.”

A longtime champion of public art, Rojas-Williams helped write and pass the city’s mural ordinance that dispensed with a moratorium lasting 10 years, leading to an explosion of public art, particularly in the downtown Arts District. For a work to have legal protection, it must be registered with the city for a $60 permit fee, hardly an option for artists who may be wanted for vandalism.

“I use the street to democratize art by putting art in places where people live and can easily access it,” writes Shepard Fairey in an email. Worth an estimated $15m, Fairey’s commitment to his work on the street led to an arrest while he was on his way to the opening of his show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2009.

“An outlaw will always be an outlaw,” offers artist David Leavitt about his friend, Fairey. “If they’re not chosen in the curatorial aspect, then an outlaw will just go out and do their shit, right?” Along with David Torres, Leavitt, aka Davey, makes up the two-man street art collective Cyrcle, based in Hollywood. Their installation occupied a gallery at the Google launch party last Tuesday where guests were encouraged to articulate their deepest secrets in a soundproof booth while their words were converted to sound waves projected on the wall outside.

“I do think that any genre that becomes popularized poses the problems that people are borrowing styles too much and it’s not creating enough originality. But how can you expect originality in an oversaturated market anyway?” wonders Leavitt. “The only scary thing to me about too much exposure is having something to do with success, and the only thing about success that is scary is the fear of it itself.”

While some might argue that street art is meant to be ephemeral, the entire community grieved when they awoke one November morning in 2013 to learn that 5 Pointz, New York City’s mecca offering 200,000 sq feet of murals by many of the world’s finest artists, had been whitewashed. A year later it was torn down to make way for a condo complex. And while everyone knows street art comes with a limited life expectancy, it didn’t make it any less painful. What did was Google documenting 5 Pointz before it was destroyed.

“Though I’d love for people to experience street art in person, the reality is that public art is ephemeral by nature,” says Fairey. “Google’s new project not only catalogs an artist’s work but archives it and allows people to see the art long after it has disappeared.”