Street Art in the Metaverse: Is it Really Street Art?

Written by Stephanie O'Brien

We love a good debate about what street art is. I guess that was kind of the point from the start… What is it? What does it mean? Why the fuck did they do that? From the 2000s to now, not much has changed. Our curiosity and critique are as intense as ever. It’s just become a little less illegal, less frowned upon, and less anti-establishment. The supporters outweigh the critics, and with that has come commercial opportunities and beautified cities all over the world.

But now we have the Metaverse. This fake world. Another space or place (is it?) that’s sending people bonkers. And people are putting street art there.

It’s hard to find a neutral opinion of our digital evolution. At least on the soap boxes of the internet (Hi! It’s me. I know, I’m here, too), the views tend to be a heavy resistance or a total embrace. There’s not a lot of neutrality online. But whatever our feelings, we ARE moving toward more digitized worlds. So, let’s talk about how, or if, street art fits here.

Bitcoin and Blockchain, to Web3, NFTs and the Metaverse

If you’re new to this whole world, it’s best to begin with an explanation of all these things and how they connect.

It began with Bitcoin.

Everyone knows Bitcoin. When it came out, I worked in the tech sector. I was immediately exposed to the early debates about what it meant for our future. This was well before crypto bros. The obsession was not the money. It was the tech. Bitcoin was built on blockchain technology, and Bitcoin was the first thing in existence to be built that way.

Blockchain tech presented a way for the internet to decentralize. If we told Meta’s Facebook and Instagram to F’ off today, we already have blockchain-based social media platforms that let us migrate our data on and off the platform. Decentralization means that no middleman is operating as the central information controller. How that would impact the street art world on social media is that artists and photographers could move their images and posts wherever they please, whenever they please. No begging or data loss necessary.

Then came the Metaverse and NFTs. If people weren’t already impassioned about crypto, you’ve probably had some feelings about NFTs. They’re basically anything that’s minted onto the blockchain. It can be art, nonsense, music, notes… In the social media example above, some platforms even mint all your posts as NFTs! Not so that they can be sold but so that they can be logged and, therefore, they can never be manipulated or taken over by anyone else.

And the Metaverse… The most confusing of all to visualize, but maybe the easiest to explain. It’s essentially anywhere that worlds have been created on blockchain tech online. Decentraland, The Sandbox, Axie Infinity and Cryptovoxels are some of the most popular. On these platforms, some of the world’s biggest brands have storefronts and run digital events. Art galleries show NFTs and host events. Melbourne-based street art turned NFT gallery Oshi has an IRL location in Australia and a digital location in the Metaverse where anyone from anywhere in the world can see the art and the event in real-time.

Metawalls, a Berlin-based street art Web3 company, has space in the Metaverse where they show art from a variety of street artists in a virtual gallery, as well as replicas of walls from Berlin on their digital land.

And Web3 is the umbrella term for the new blockchain-based, decentralised internet. Anything built on the blockchain is a Web3 product, tool, concept, project – whatever it may be.

 

Is Digital Art Really Still Street Art?

When I first processed the concept of street art being immortalized into NFTs, I was unbelievably excited. The idea that artists who painted on the streets for free could get paid for that art through NFTs seemed like some magic advancement for the scene. But selling art requires marketing. Marketing requires buzzwords, and #streetartNFT is one of the hottest for our guys, gals and NB pals in this biz – which leads us to judge them! Is it really still street art when you put it online?

For the sake of this debate, let’s piss loads of people off and consider all public art as street art. Murals and graffiti included.

One of the first truly credible street art NFT projects on the market was Streetlab.io. They support killer street artists to get into the space, tapping into a network of already hyped, enthusiastic street art fans ready to buy their work in digital form. The first few drops saw nothing but praise in the comments section, and then one artist released an abstract digital artwork, and the criticism rolled on in. The main comment was not cruel; it was simply, “Is it street art, though?”. Fair question. Is it?

Any conversation about street art NFTs has to include KIWIE. One of the early adopters and biggest innovators in this space, KIWIE quit his job and decided to go on a world tour to paint his KIWIE monster, supporting himself exclusively through his KIWIE 1001 NFTs. He went to hidden locations, painted unique characters, captured them in hi-res images, pinned the geolocation and partnered with Rarible to turn them into NFTs with the geolocation included so that the owners of the NFTs would also be the patron of the original physical artworks. Now, we’re blurring the lines.

What about yonmeister, a Californian artist who paints his ‘homies’ around San Francisco, Venice Beach and beyond? His Homie Party collection of NFTs, at first glance, fit the PFP-style profile of NFTs that everyone loves to hate. They’re a collection of his homies, animated with similar themes as a variety of different characters. But purchase a homie NFT, and yon will paint it IRL. The same goes for another collection of his, Domes, where he has made physical fine art pieces that, when bought, come with an NFT twin and a copy painted IRL. yon is flipping the typical physical to digital script.

Next up is Diego Bergia. Perhaps the most interesting person to reference in this topic. Metaverse and NFTs aside, Diego is a graffiti artist, art director and animator who found himself specializing in a totally amazing niche. You’ve probably seen his graffiti if you’ve played Tony Hawk video games. Diego is the guy people call when they want graff on their digital walls – or skate bowls, in this example. A game designer to boot, Diego’s The Primary Invasion games are centered around spray-painting as the objective of the game. Graffiti is the entire focus of his work. His Throwies NFT collection is a spinoff of his video game characters, all with unique throwups differentiating each NFT. If Diego’s graff were on walls in the Metaverse, would we still call it street art? It’s undeniably graffiti.

Finally, we have Australian graffiti and street artist JESWRI and his Keyboard Warrior Internet Cafe. The fastest sellout of NFTs in Australia, the KWIC project itself is not necessarily about street art. But like Diego, KWIC has a video game component, and naturally, the aesthetic of a metaverse game designed by a public artist comes bombed with pieces. Players can then also paint their own.

Street Art or Not, Digital “Street” Art Is Here

This aesthetic has been permeating digital walls for decades now. Even way back in 2006, graffiti-artist-turned-fashion-designer Marc Echo released a video game, Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, with the amateur graffiti writer as the protagonist.

The difference between then and now is that we’re faced with the prospect of actually BEING in these digital worlds. If Zuckerberg has his way, we’ll all have headsets on and live in a legless world almost 24/7. While I personally think that’s just the dream of a man who wants to dominate the headset market, it’s likely we’ll all participate more and more with the Metaverse in some form.

Whether we can call it street art or not, I’m unbelievably grateful that, at the genesis of these new worlds, street and graffiti artists are making their marks and ensuring we get to enter worlds that reflect the counter-culture environments we’ve worked so hard to build IRL. The more independent artists and creatives influence this space, the less susceptible we are to toxic crypto-culture and the dominance of corporations and tech giants controlling how we engage with our new world.

Digital art, street art, whatever the fuck it is… bring it on.

Disclaimer: Obviously, I am enthusiastic about what blockchain technology enables. However, this does not extend to an exclusively pro-stance on crypto and NFTs.

Stephanie O’Brien is a writer and podcast host based in Melbourne, Australia. Fascinated by street art and constantly curious about what compels artists to take their art to the streets, she has been on an international mission to share street art and its stories with the world. Her podcast, Street Art Unearthed, boasts more than 100 episodes featuring interviews with some of the world’s biggest artists.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stephanieob/