Nestled behind the NuSkin building and the Provo City Center Temple is a block of unassuming buildings: a few apartments and offices and a series of gigantic pixellated portraits.
Albert Einstein is chief among the featured faces, in addition to portrayals of Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Their creator is scientist and artist Reid Robison, the CEO of data-driven genetics company Tute Genomics.
Robison said he wanted to use his office space to paint a unique tribute to several influential thinkers.
“I like to think of street art as a big, open air museum,” Robinson said in an email. “The urban landscape is the largest art gallery in the world — less like a library, more like a playground or a stage. Less hushed tones; more interactive. No rules, no entrance fees and no security guards watching your every move to make sure you don’t touch — or, heaven forbid, take a selfie in front of the artwork.”
Street art, stencils and murals are popping up more frequently around Provo. This trend has raised questions concerning the definition of art and graffiti. BYU design professor Michael Parker sees a delineation between the two.
“I see street art as anything that was created with the intent to engage the viewer through the imagery,” Parker said. “This can be paintings on the sides of buildings or murals, imagery placed in public places on buildings, streets, chalk art, large printed images and even projected imagery.”
Parker said graffiti has a different intent in his mind. He explained that graffiti typically refers to painting or artwork done without the consent of the owner of the public space — in short, vandalism.
Provo City works hard to keep the streets clean and free of vandalism, according to Provo Police Special Operations Division supervisor, officer Janna-lee Haight. She said city code is strict and all graffiti must be cleaned within 48 hours.
The city rounds up a juvenile justice system “tag cleanup crew” everyday to clean graffiti and help juvenile offenders work off assigned community service hours. Many of the juvenile offenders are taggers who have been caught and sent back out to clean up.
Areas along the Provo River system are especially prone to tagging. Provo painted its own murals on Columbia Lane in 2013 in order to deter vandals.
“Every now and again I find really good graffiti and think, ‘That’s really good,’ but it’s just the mindless tagging that we really frown upon,” Haight said.
Installations that look professionally done, such as Robison’s pixellated portrait of Einstein, are not usually the police’s concern, according to Haight.
The most famous figure in the international street art scene is the enigma known as “Banksy.” His anti-authoritarian art pieces have appeared all over the world, including several in nearby Park City.
The anonymous British street artist’s works have sold at auction for enormous sums of money: nearly $2 million.
Banksy doesn’t get consent to paint his works. His newest art installation, a mural painted on a Bristol primary school, garnered international headlines. He even wrote a letter to the kids at the school saying “Remember — it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
Now that his artwork is selling for millions of dollars, some even say street art has become a mainstream trend. Banksy’s 2010 documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” tackles the topic of the commercialization of street art and copycat artists mimicking his artistic style.
Even some businesses have hopped on the street art trend bandwagon. Sam Mecham is the manager and part owner of the downtown concert venue Gezzo Hall. He said the building started advertising with art after he booked local band Red Yeti to perform when he was planning the grand opening party for the venue in April 2015.
“It was actually their idea to paint the big mural outside to promote the show,” Mecham said. “They headlined that night, and then we kept doing murals for the rest of our shows.”
Mecham said the wall art encourages bands and fans to get involved in the marketing hype for each event. The bands themselves usually paint the murals along with collaborators, and on two occasions Mecham commissioned Salt Lake City-based street artist Jake Reedy to paint them.
“I think that good street art can be beneficial to a community,” Parker said. “Personally, I think it would be great to have a public space where there is an opportunity to rotate street art in the space that is supported by the public.”
Robison agreed street art has a unique voice that influences and shapes communities.
“I remember when Banksy reportedly came through Utah several years ago and tagged a billboard company’s own billboard in Salt Lake, leaving their slogan intact (‘Guess you could say I’m in outside sales’) but adding his name after it,” Robison said. “It’s true. Street art is social experiment that raises awareness in the community. We need more of this kind of thing in Utah.”