Sun, Jun 15, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Google adds graffiti to its art portfolio

Amid controversy in privacy-conscious Europe, the search engine launched its Street Art Project, a database of public art images some of which were captured with its Street View camera technology

By Rachel Donadio  /  NY TIMES News service, Paris

A work by artist Vihls etched in a concrete wall is pictured at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris late last month.

Photo: AFP/Francois Guillot

There’s a portrait of an anonymous Chinese man chiseled into a wall in Shanghai, a colorful mural in Atlanta and black-and-white photographs of eyes that French artist JR affixed to the houses of a hillside favela in Rio de Janeiro. These are among the images of more than 4,000 works included in a vast new online gallery of street art that Google is unveiling here Tuesday.

Called the Street Art Project, the database was created by the company’s Paris-based Google Cultural Institute. Using images provided by cultural organizations worldwide, some of which were captured with Google’s Street View camera technology, it includes street art from around the globe, including work that no longer exists, like the 5Pointz murals in Queens or the walls of the Tour Paris 13 tower in France.

With the initiative, Google is the latest organization to wade into debates about how or whether to institutionalize, let alone commercialize, art that is ephemeral and often willfully created subversively. A private database of public art, it also poses questions about how to legally preserve what in some cases might be considered vandalism.

In a sense, Google is formalizing what street art fans around the world already do: take pictures of city walls and distribute them on social media. Yet for Google to do so could raise concerns, given the criticism of its aggressive surveillance tactics, especially in Europe, where its Street View satellite mapping is widely seen as a violation of privacy.

Google is taking pains to avoid offense by setting strict conditions. It will include only images provided by organizations that sign a contract attesting that they own the rights to them. It will not cull through Street View images but will provide the technology to organizations that want to use it to record street art legally. Some groups have provided exact locations of the artworks; others have not.

Aiming to steer clear of one of the most contentious debates in the street art world, Google says it will not include images from groups seeking to sell the art or images of it. Many street artists object to their public work being sold without their permission. For instance, Banksy, the anonymous British street artist, has objected to attempts to sell his artworks after they are stripped from public walls, saying the stencils belong to the community.

Google also said it would remove images if artists complained to the groups that contributed them to the database.


The company sees the platform as a way of making more art available to viewers. “I’m not treating street art as anything different from what I would do with the Impressionist collection I’m getting on Art Project,” said Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, referring to a philanthropic initiative that has provided technical support to more than 460 museums to help put their collections online.

The institute, which was founded in 2011 and has a staff of around 30 engineers, has also helped create online archives for historic figures like Nelson Mandela and used Street View to provide multimedia renderings of UNESCO World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Sood acknowledges that the street art program, like the Cultural Institute, is a way for Google to generate good will in privacy-conscious Europe. “It helps make people realize we are doing a lot of things that actually support the community,” he said.

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