It's 4 p.m. in Los Angeles, and the artist who calls himself Branded is getting ready for a "mission." If he were another kind of artist, he would call it a gallery opening, but today his gallery consists of a few alleys off La Brea Avenue and some threadbare bits of downtown. Once there, he will look for exhibition sites, meaning temporary construction walls, shuttered buildings and utility boxes. One thing to know about street art is that it generally plants its flag in Nowheresville.
In his car Branded has several broad brushes, a bucket of the watery adhesive called wheat paste and a stack of his trademark cartoonish bunny posters. His first target is a utility box on La Brea. With a friend stationed nearby to watch for police, Branded, 30, brushes a layer of paste on the box and slaps up the poster. Then he whips open his cell phone, snaps a picture and e-mails the shot to flickr.com a photo website on which artists post their work.
"The act of doing it is interesting," says Branded. (Street art is almost always illegal--another word for it is vandalism--so pseudonyms are an almost universal part of the culture.) "There's the adrenaline. Once it's up, then it's about getting the reactions." By that night, his images will be flying around the Internet, passed along by some of the hundreds of thousands of people who keep track of this stuff, some because they make it but most because they like to know about it and may spot it in its natural habitat. Think of it as postmodern bird watching.
Street art is the catchall term for the accelerating phenomenon of surreptitious imagery inserted by mostly young artists into the municipal gumbo of overpasses, alleys and neglected street corners. It is popping up in cities everywhere--New York, Los Angeles, London, São Paulo. And although it has roots in the outburst of graffiti spray painting in the 1970s and '80s, it's a different order of business. In the brief annals of street-art history, graffiti ranks as something like cave painting--a first gesture, recognized for its primal intuition that public space is up for grabs--and has, in the past four or so years, been overtaken by a host of new practices: wheat-pasted posters, adhesive stickers with oddball images on them, elaborately stenciled images and even three-dimensional objects. And like many things that start below the Establishment's radar, it has caught the eye of the mainstream and is edging into the galleries.
Ad and Droo, 33, twin brothers based in New York City, call themselves Skewville. One of their practices is to rescue discarded metal ventilator grates and carve them with such block-lettered words as FAKE or SKEW. Then they mount their creations on exterior walls where you might expect to find working ventilator grates, hiding their art in plain sight within the urban jungle. The Los Angeles artist Tiki Jay One, 32, has recently begun cementing to whatever surface will hold them 1-ft.-tall concrete sculptures of Polynesian tiki heads. "When I go out, it's a serious operation," he says. "This takes a lot of planning."