Street Art, between sanction and consecration

Street Art has become more and more successful with an increasingly large public audience since its birth in the early sixties. Exhibitions, specialized auctions and prizes have been devoted to this new art.  These artists utilize various techniques such as stencils, tagging, mosaic or calligraphy and often deliver political messages.

During the 2000s, the street art reinvented its codes by innovating by using screens and lights, smartphone applications and mapping in order to create an interaction with its audience. This has often been described as the birth of “Street Art 2.0”.

Street Art is thus meeting a true artistic consecration and is regarded as a real artistic stream having its own codes and its own self-recognized artistic “community”. Some of its members often co-operate on projects.

However, is street art legally recognized?  Or, should it be qualified as vandalism and thus punished to the extent that walls, vehicles and boards are used as supports (or media) in various places?

In France, the law provides for legal sanctions if a tag is using a support without its owner’s authorization. Indeed, “the fact of tracing inscriptions, signs or drawings without previous authorization, on walls, vehicles, streets or street furniture is punished by a fine of 3,700 euros and a sentence of community service in case of slight damage.” The sanction can be up to a 30,000 euros fine and two years imprisonment if the art work has caused “destruction, degradation or deterioration of a commodity belonging to somebody else”.

Thus, some artists do not hesitate to ask for authorization before beginning their artistic creation. This is so, for example in the case of Miss Tic who realizes her stencils on Paris’ walls after obtaining a prior authorization from the owners.

Now, can works of street art be considered as works of art in a legal sense?

Copyright does not include any value judgment about works. The French Intellectual Property Code (CPI) “protects the authors’ rights for any type of works of the mind whatever kind, shape, merit or destination” (article L. 112-1 of the CPI).  The required and sufficient condition of copyright is the originality of the work. So it appears that works of Street Art are protected by copyright provided that they are original and show the characteristic style of their author.

We note that there are few cases decided concerning the protection of these works of art and graffiti as many are illicit. Street art therefore poses a real problem of conflict between property rights and author’s rights. What right should be considered the strongest?  The legislator did not settle this question; there are no specific legal provisions regarding works of street art. Case law does not enlighten us much more with only some exceptions.

Recently, the French-Suisse artist, Monsieur CHAT, who had produced cat heads in August 2014 on the walls of the Châtelet metro station which was being renovated, was sued by the Paris subway company RATP, which was no doubt tired of spending a considerable amount of money each year to clean up these tags.  However, due to a procedural error, the legal action was abandoned in October 2014, so that the issue to know whether these tags would be considered an act of vandalism or not was never judged.

To avoid legal proceedings and sanctions the urban artists should therefore ask the necessary authorizations of the owners of the walls.  However, I see a certain paradox as it concerns spontaneous and fleeting art.  Certain urban artists who no longer wish to see their works destroyed more or less rapidly have decided to leave the streets…  The first to have done so, Keith Haring, had many works in the New York streets and subways and finally became successful at his first one-man show in l982 at the Gallery Tony Shafrazi in New York.


The artist Gregos showed at the Paris Bar Center in October 2013 his bronze, plaster and crystal faces that you might have already noticed on walls in Paris or elsewhere. A work of the artist MissTic, who is represented by the gallery Lélia Mordoch, was also showed during this exhibition that I had organized on the theme of stencils.

CNA’RT 2013, 2nd edition.

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