A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Laughs: Street Art at the Intersection of Humor and Satire

I feel that it is safe to say that when walking down the street one does not expect to see Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining peering out at them from behind a broken door, or Mario from the beloved Mario Brothers being questioned by a police officer about his mysterious mushrooms. Yes, truly no one expects to see those bizarre  images while on a daily stroll about town, but perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the familiar in an unusual situation that makes us…laugh?

Over the span of its turbulent life, street art has been called many things. Seditious, illegal, inspiring, revolutionary, and confusing are just some of the terms used to describe this controversial movement. There are many street artists who have been known to satirize and express dissatisfaction with societal, political, and ethical issues. However, there are other street artists who create art with no particular message to share. The humorous and sometimes tongue-in-cheek works of these artists are often neglected for appearing to be meaningless and silly. On one hand, honestly, a large portion of these works are in fact silly and have no “point”. On the other hand, many works that appear to be foolish actually possess hidden messages underneath their humorous shells. Humor in street art not only makes its audience smile, but it also acts as a means for communication among its audience and for the expression of larger ideas and themes.

Oakoak “Fuck the Lannisters” France 2013 Credit: Oakoak

There are many emotions and ideas that are universal regardless of race, religion, gender, or origin. Humor, although it may take different forms, is one of those ideas. Many street artists dedicate their time to creating works for the sole purpose of making their audience laugh, or at least distracting them from their bustling,  structured routines. One street artist in particular achieves this goal by utilizing figures in pop culture to bring a smile to a passerby’s face. Oakoak, an artist based out of St. Etienne, France, places popular and familiar  characters from movies and television in unexpected places. Oakoak’s  piece “Shining” depicts Jack Nicholson’s famous character from The Shining peering out at those walking by, as if he’s about to exclaim, “Here’s Johnny!”. Another piece by Oakoak depicts some explicit graffiti referencing the hit tv show, Game of Thrones. One of the main characters, Arya, is expressing her rather unsavory views of the Lannister family. The  familiarity of these characters makes the pieces more relatable and grabs the attention of the audience. Although they appear to be another stencil or another graffiti tag, these pieces combine the familiar with the unexpected creating an  unusual, but fun atmosphere for the viewer

Solus “Untitled” Dublin, Ireland Credit: Solus

Oakoak “Shining” France 2012 Credit: Oakoak

Just as some street artists create humorous work just for the fun of it (literally), there are other artists who utilize humor to push at the envelope of society. To those passing by,  what may seem like a  funny, tongue-in-cheek piece of art may also actually be a subtle threat to those who view graffiti as a plight on society. Street art and graffiti have always been controversial, and many artists choose to embrace the illicit nature of their craft. Some artists decide to engage in the not so subtle battle  between street art and the authority, with their main weapon being humor. The pieces shown here are unexpected, yet their peculiarity is what adds to their humor. Our beloved Mario brother being suspected of selling drugs? A vandal painting a message of love? The contrasting messages of these images entertain and intrigue the audience, but there is a de-

iCON “Untitled” Ladbroke Grove, West London 2013 Credit: iCON

eper meaning behind the comedy.  The police officer questioning Mario shows us the growing loss of innocence in children and the danger of the  illegal street economy. The lovable vandal is showing that graffiti doesn’t deserve to be demonized, that it is a form of expression that cannot be silenced. With street art such as these there is always more than meets the eye.

 

Combo “Je Déteste la Rentrée” France Credit: Combo

With some graffiti artists, the battle between artist and authority is even more direct. A French street artist by the name of Combo had a very direct encounter with someone attempting to silence his art. A power washer was sent to take down one of Combo’s pieces, and as fate would have it, Combo happened to be walking by and snapped a picture. To  retaliate, Combo repainted his original work but with  one small addition; the power washer who attempted to take down his work. This encounter, now displayed for all to see on a busy street in France, is a comedic example of the te nsion between street art and its opposers.

Street art and its comedy can parody pop culture and it can poke at the fabric of society, but it can even parody itself. Graffiti and street art are the new social media platforms. Instead of posting to their walls on Facebook, they use actual walls. These art movements connect to their audience, but they also connect to other artists. For example, the artist Banksy has become synonymous with the street art movement. His work has critiqued consumerist culture

Oakoak Banksy vs. Homer France 2015 Credit: Oakoak

Oakoak “Flying Donuts Homer” St. Etienne, France 2016 Credit: Oakoak

and mainstream societal norms. Many other artists have parodied his work to adapt to their own causes. The artist Oakoak, however, decided to parody Banksy’s work and add in an unexpected  guest. These two works by Oakoak are direct parodies of two Banksy pieces, but instead of a young girl and her beloved balloons, there is Homer Simpson and his beloved donuts. These funny pieces show that there is yet another purpose of street art: to communicate with not only the audience, but fellow artists as well.

 

We’ve seen how humor in street art can  be a means for  artists to bring laughter into the world, to tease those in places of authority, and communicate with others in the local a

Borf “Sorry About Your Wall” Washington D.C.

nd global community, but humor can also be used to express even larger ideas. At first, this work by an unknown artist in Athens seems to be solely a silly take on a classic greek statue. In actuality, this piece is a testament to the decline of a nation and its dedication to remain afloat. “Achilles”, a classic Greek hero, is  telling the world that Greece will prevail through its economic and social struggles.  This funny work is actually an image of defiance. Another example would be the twenty month long graffiti campaign of the young artist known as Borf. As a teenager, Borf painted peculiar images and phra

Unknown Artist “Achilles” Athens, Greece Credit: Huffington Post

ses across the suburbs of Washington D.C. His work was  funny, and he even claimed that his campaign was “designed to be noticed but not understood” (Manteuffel). Despite his claims, Borf actually dedicated his campaign to his childhood friend who had committed suicide at the age of sixteen. Distraught by his friend’s death, the artist took up his friend’s nickname, Borf. Even though these works are funny and strange, their humor is  actually a means to an end: a way to express something, political or social.

 

The desire to connect is universal and inherent in all of us. Humor in street art is used for a great deal of reasons: to entertain, to protest, to share, to express. Most of all humor is used to connect to those around us. So next time you see a silly or peculiar piece of graffiti, take a minute to enjoy it. It’s okay if you don’t understand its meaning; it may not even have one. Take the time to appreciate the connection that is being made and, most importantly, laugh!

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