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The Importance of Digitizing Street Art Heritage

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

In 2019, SAMA began a project to digitise its collection with the aim of preserving and disseminating its artworks. The museum's collection and staff expertise have already been cited in more than 100 research papers and the catalogue will give the museum the opportunity to provide a globally accessible tool for research. Most importantly, the catalogue will continue the museum's mission of using art as a tool for dialogue with disparate social and ethnic groups.

The question of digitisation of urban art has become in recent years an issue of particular debate also at the academic level: the need to find a way to preserve the value of these works of art without decontextualising them from the environment in which they are located and to which they are inexorably linked has quickly become apparent. Over the years, more and more frequently, we have seen "murderous practices" carried out in an attempt to preserve and disseminate urban artworks, but which in the end have merely succumbed to the logic of the art market and spectacle. To paraphrase Harry Ruhé:

"What once was living material in a public space becomes a relic in a sterile institution. What once was a people's passion becomes the regular work of a museum employee".

Inspired by Harry Ruhé, "Multiples, et cetera" (1991).

The main problem with street art is its very essence as public art: it cannot be removed from its environment because it has been created specifically for that space and with specific functions. In some cases the work of art only solidifies through the social and cultural significance it has in certain urban areas: an example are the murals by Blu and Ericailcane created in the Carbonazzi neighbourhood in Sassari (Sardinia, Italy); other times it visually dialogues with its environment, as in Banksy's works created on the occasion of his artistic residency "Better Out Than In" in New York.

Artwork by Blu in Sassari, Sardinia. | © Blu

Many studies therefore suggest that the only way to adequately preserve works of street art is to document their presence in a multimedia way, together with an extensive description of the artist's trajectory, the history of the work and the cultural and social context in which it is handled. In this sense, SAMA is actively working to promote a digital catalogue of its collection and thus preserve works of art that will necessarily decay in the future and make them still accessible to all. The institution is aware of the limitation of the visual experience through photos or videos, so it is also developing a project of VR/AR transposition of its collection to offer its public a 100% immersive experience.

"These pieces are inextricably linked to the exact locations they were created and photographed in. To remove them from these locations is to change the work of art from something created by the artist to something else entirely."

Brian A. Brown, "Digitized Street Art" (2015).

The need to protect urban art and its history stems from the ephemeral nature of his works, which are destined to decay. Following the brilliant article by Brian A. Brown "Digitized Street Art" (2015), we can recognise five main causes that cause the decay of street art: firstly, the ostracism of municipal institutions that, especially in the past, considered street art and graffiti as a sign of aesthetic decay of the city; secondly, the owners of private properties where the artwork is created, who fear a devaluation of the property due to this artistic vandalism.

These are the two main causes contributing to the disappearance of works of art; nowadays they occur less, but particularly between the 80's and 90's an incredibly large number of works by pioneering artists have been lost. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant demonstrate this in their book "Subway Art" (1984), a photographic catalogue of the main artists of the New York urban scene of the 80s.

Another cause is the rivalry between other artists and crews and the possession of territory: the rhetoric of the graffiti war is a key feature of this subculture and leads to both the elimination of artworks and the creation of new ones. In addition to this, we have to consider the materials used for graffiti, the difficult surfaces where it is created and the total absence of protection, which progressively leads to its decay.

The last and most devastating cause is the economic impact of street art: many artists are nowadays among the most highly rated in the art market and the anonymity or public side of their work also causes the deliberate purchase of portions of walls with their production. These works of art are then removed from their habitat to be preserved in institutions or private collections.

In conclusion, urban art is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and fragile to preserve: in addition to the many causes that can cause its disappearance, one must be aware that it is not possible to save it from its necessary perishing and decay. Street art produces ephemeral, not eternal works, so their organic cycle must be respected. The only action an institution can take to preserve their history and aesthetics is to proceed with cataloguing and digitisation, creating the most immersive and interactive paths to allow the general public to enjoy the works of art even when, in the future, they will necessarily disappear.

Artwork by Ericailcane in Sassari, Sardinia. | © Ericailcane

SAMA digital catalogue project is supported by

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