The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.
Tips for Caring for Street Art
What is street art?
Street art is a cultural and artistic expression that has been created or installed in a public space. When there is prior permission and planning, it is often referred to as public art. Sometimes street art is considered vandalism, but other times it is embraced and valued by the neighborhood.
Street art can take a number of forms, including paintings, sculpture, posters, or even yarnbombing. Murals are paintings that have been created on walls and other architectural spaces, and are not portable. Street art paintings can also be applied on fabric or plywood boards.
Why is street art difficult to preserve?
Street art is usually not intended to last forever. A mural that is created after careful planning, using the most stable materials, and receiving regular maintenance, might have a lifespan of 20-30 years. Conservation and maintenance over time costs money, and it’s very rare for there to be long-term financial support for street art. Additionally, it’s often unclear whose responsibility it is to care for street art. Typically, the intellectual property belongs to the artist while the physical work might be owned by the building owner where the artwork was installed. Ideally, the decision to preserve street art should be agreed upon by the artist, building owner, and neighborhood.
Here are the most typical problems with preserving street art:
- Materials used in its creation were not designed or tested for longevity
- Misguided attempts to preserve might cause more damage
- Exposure to weather, light, and pollution
- No funding for maintenance or conservation treatment
- Artist is unknown
- Removing street art to preserve in more ideal conditions, such as in a gallery or museum, can strip the artwork of its context and identity, preserving the material but not the meaning
Recommendations for preserving existing street art
Document the mural with high resolution photographs. Try to record the artist’s identity and the types of paints and other materials used. Add this documentation to a local street art register if possible (examples: George Floyd & Anti-Racist Street Art, Chicago Mural Registry).
Regularly assess the condition of the street art using a condition report form such as this version provided by the Canadian Conservation Institute: Outdoor Mural Condition Report Form. Conducting an annual inspection will allow possible issues to be addressed before they cause irreparable damage.
Encourage artists to become familiar with best practices for creating street art in order to choose materials and locations that will naturally enhance preservation - for example, avoiding south-facing walls where light damage and heat damage from the sun will be more intense, and choosing paints with light-resistant pigments.
Coatings can be applied to protect the paint layer and to make it easier to remove graffiti. Coatings should be durable, permeable, reversible, and compatible with the artwork, so that they can be removed later without damaging the paint layer. Always test a coating in a small area before applying overall. Depending on a number of conditions, a clear coating can become cloudy, yellow, or begin to chip and flake. Don’t apply impermeable and irreversible coatings (such as polyurethane), as these will cause more damage over time. Find more advice on coatings here.
Don’t attempt to preserve the artwork by covering it with glass or Plexiglass. This will trap moisture and dirt and speed up deterioration. It will also alter the appearance of the artwork, and make it more difficult to see.
Use overhangs and gutters to redirect water away from the artwork.
Maintain street art by sweeping around it, cutting back nearby plant growth, keeping gutters clean, and promptly removing graffiti or vandalism. You can install signage nearby with contact information for reporting graffiti or vandalism.
If the mural is washed, it should be done as gently as possible without detergents and with minimal water pressure. Test a small area before cleaning overall.
Try to obtain the permission of the artist, building owner, and neighborhood before moving street art to a protected location for preservation purposes. Document the original location and context as much as possible beforehand, and keep these records associated with the artwork.
Best Practices for Creating Street Art
“Conservation guidelines for outdoor murals”. Canadian Conservation Institute. (2017) https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/care-objects/fine-art/conservation-guidelines-outdoor-murals.html
“Mural Creation Best Practices”. Rescue Public Murals. (n.d.) https://www.culturalheritage.org/docs/default-source/resources/mural-creation-best-practices-full-document.pdf?sfvrsn=4
Williams, B. “Techniques of Community Murals” Community Public Art Guide. (n.d.) http://www.cpag.net/guide/2/2_pages/2_1.htm
Di Giacomo, G. “Top Tips in Street Art Conservation”. Street Art Today. (2018) https://streetart.today/2018/07/24/top-tips-in-street-art-conservation/
Garcia, R. “Ephemerality, Values and New Models: an Approach to Graffiti and Street Art Conservation” Plowden & Smith. (2019) https://www.plowden-smith.com/ephemerality-values-and-new-models-an-approach-to-graffiti-and-street-art-conservation/
García Gayo, E. “Street Art Conservation: The drift of abandonment” SAUC Journal Vol 1 No 1. (2015) http://urbancreativity.org/uploads/1/0/7/2/10727553/gayo_journal2015_v1_n1.pdf
Hoagland, S. “Art or Awful: The Conservation of Graffiti”. National Trust for Historic Preservation: Preservation Leadership Forum. (2019) https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/special-contributor/2019/05/30/art-or-awful-the-conservation-of-graffiti
Rainer, L. “The Conservation of Outdoor Contemporary Murals”. The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2. (2003) https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/18_2/feature.html
Santabárbara, C. “Street art conservation: beyond mural restoration” Opus n.s. n. 2. (2018) https://www.academia.edu/38624223/Street_art_conservation_beyond_mural_restoration_Conservazione_della_street_art_oltre_il_restauro_murale?auto=download
Smith McNally, R. and Hsu, L. “Conservation of Contemporary Public Art”. Conservation Perspectives: the GCI Newsletter. (2012) https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/27_2/public_art.html