Defiant, farcical, profane: These are the words that come to mind when attempting to describe the street art that photographer Yoav Litvin has chronicled on the streets of New York for the past few years. Semi-sanctioned, quasi-legal, or downright illegal, the works that draw Litvin’s eye—those created by alternative painters, graffiti artists, collagists and muralists—are compiled in his new book, Outdoor Gallery: New York City (Ginko Press). The resulting collection makes a compelling case that ephemeral street art is a cultural treasure.
Although society tends to look at these outdoor works as vandalism, Litvin takes a longer view. The book profiles 46 artist, mostly pseudonymous personalities—Toofly, Miyok, Icy and Sot, Gaia, Kram and Bunny M being just a few—to prove street art’s current wave impacts contemporary aesthetics just as powerfully as the Salon de Refusés did in the nineteenth century. Much of that has to do with exposure: While posting on private and city-owned surfaces ensures these works won’t be around for long, the street provides enviable visibility while they last. These days the format is distinguished by its rebellious edge, too: As Litvin told me, “I can appreciate the rush and risks artists take when putting up pieces in public. I also really admire their generosity in taking these risks to share their vision.”
Litvin began documenting street art after a battle with illness left him physically incapable of any form of exercise other than walking. As he began walking more and further, he ended up exploring unfamiliar parts of New York, where he “consumed more and more of the graffiti and street art culture [and] fell in love with its beauty, humor, and the way it challenges convention.” His love for the format has a lot to do with its politically defiant messages: “It is an incredible, non-violent way to raise issues in the public sphere and promote positive change. As a political person, I am drawn to the rebellious and confrontational nature of much of it.” By documenting these urban works, he aims to share, celebrate, and contribute to its peaceful protest.
Litvin’s not the first to notice street art’s captivating qualities: Outdoor Gallery is just one installment in a long history of photographers capturing New York’s native works. In the 1970s photographer Henry Chalfant co-authored Subway Art and the sequel Spraycan Art, documenting the wave of graffiti as part of hip-hop culture, the kind that drove city mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani nuts. Their crusade against street art is documented in the 1983 documentary film, Style Wars, a must-see history of New York graffiti tagging that Chalfant also co-produced.