Top tips in Street Art Conservation

Street art conservation can sound like a contradictio in terminis, given the ephemeral nature of the art form. However, this is an idea that is rapidly changing. The development goes parallel with the perception of street art as cultural heritage. Artists, communities and governments alike are looking for ways to make artworks in the public space last longer. Also, more and more art conservators are specializing in this contemporary field.

Giovanna Di Giacomo, responsible for Collection Management and Research at Street Art Today’s museum in the making, joined the Masterclass Conservation of Public Murals and Street Art which took place in Porto, Portugal last June. Organized by 20|21 Conservação e Restauro de Arte Contemporânea and conducted by the street art conservation experts Maria Chatzidakis, co-founder of Street Art Conservators, and Will Shank, co-initiator of Rescue Public Murals, the event brought together specialists from the Netherlands (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed), Italy (Cesmar 7), Ireland (Decowell Restoration) and the U.S.A. (Fine Art Conservation Lab), among others.

Below Giovanna shares five useful tips for the preservation of street art, based on insights gained at the masterclass. A good starting point for artists, local governments and street art organizations alike.

1. Understand the context

Before taking any step in street art conservation, it’s fundamental that you understand your context. Is this work’s conservation relevant? To who? And why? How can we implement conservation in this case? The answers to these questions serve as guidelines in different stages, from the decision of legal aspects to the creative process and the conservation itself.

Let’s say you are involved in a mural production. Then, it’s good to have an understanding of the interests of the stakeholders in the project. If the artwork has a strong connection to the local community and the goal was to communicate with this target group, why not consider the wall’s conservation by applying a coating on the artwork? This is an easy solution, which protects it from UV degradation and tagging. Coatings come in a super durable 2K lacquer, but there’s also a variety of wax-based products available. While a 2K coating is permanent, a wax coating is more environmentally friendly and easier to be removed, although it needs more maintenance over time. Applying this product should preferably be done by a professional, since the level of humidity in the air is a factor in causing an unwanted milky effect in the coating.

It’s good to define in an early stage who is responsible for executing the conservation: the artist or an art conservator. And who should bare the costs? Think about allocating a budget for conservation and restoration. Include it in a legal agreement between the artist and the client.

Mural by Frederico Draw in Porto, one of the stops during the street art tour at the Masterclass. An interesting case, where damages of the wall were incorporated in the artwork.

Mural by Frederico Draw in Porto, one of the stops during the street art tour at the Masterclass. An interesting case, where damages of the wall were incorporated in the artwork.

2. Know your materials

Nobody understands painting techniques better than the artist. But how far stretches the knowledge about the behavior of paints on a certain surface? The choice of materials in combination with the surface is a strategic one. When using paints with different binders (the polymer in the paint that keeps the pigment in place) there is a risk that they don’t react well to each other. It can happen right when you paint, causing the paint to instantly bubble or crack. In the long run, it can cause brittleness and faster deterioration of the paint layers.

So look into technical data sheets of your favorite paint on the manufacturers’ website. Or ask your paint supplier for information on these binders and UV degradation. The latter may vary according to the color and paint type. Montana Colors, producer of the widely used MTN94 spray paint, has a useful data sheet with an index on color fastness of every color.

MTN94 UV Index

MTN94 spray paint index indicating color fastness. Colors are rated one, two or three sun icons for UV resistance.

3. Ask a professional for advice

Art conservators point out that artists can be apprehensive about working under their guidance. However, this shouldn’t be a concern, as art conservators can give recommendations, while the artist is in charge of making the final decision. Another option that has been increasingly adopted by artists is the use of consultancy services of professionals about specific matters that may be a future conservation issue.

Professional code

In art conservation and restoration there is a professional code. It states that conservators shouldn’t be creative in their work. The number one objective should be to bring an artwork to its original conditions, as it was intended by the artist.

Will Shank, the acclaimed restorer of Keith Haring murals who is also involved in Haring’s recently rediscovered wall in Amsterdam, had an interesting case at the masterclass, which illustrates that. Together with the art conservator Antonio Rava, he successfully used heated agar agar to clean Keith Haring’s “The Tower” in Paris in 2017. This substance made the original colors used by Haring come back to life. Shank also shared other unexpected techniques and materials in conservation. While working at the San Francisco MOMA, he once had to bake his own bread following a special recipe. With it’s breadcrumbs he was then able to remove degradation signs from a sculpture.

Restoration by Matilde Dolcetti of a paste up by Mariana PTKS, during the Master Class. The procedure was authorized by the artist. (Photo: Cimbalino Filmes)

4. Document everything

Documentation is a key aspect in artwork conservation. Getting back to Keith Haring’s wall restoration, the documentation of Haring’s creation of this work was essential in the restoration process. The conservators had access to knowledge about the paints, the tools and techniques that were used. Thus, if you are planning to conserve street art, take notes of all materials that are being used to make the artwork. And be specific: include brand, product name and color code.

Take photos and make a time-lapse

Registering how the artwork was created is indispensable. A time-lapse can be very useful to reconstruct the different steps in the making of the artwork. Don’t rely on the fact that you will always remember how you did certain things. And even if, a time-lapse can give conservators a lot of info. When the artwork is finished, always take pictures with a professional camera and posteriorly white balance the colors. So you have a good reference image for future detection of deterioration and a source image for an adequate restoration.

The "Tower" by Keith Haring in Paris, after the restoration by Will Shank and Antonio Rava.

The “Tower” by Keith Haring in Paris, after the restoration by Will Shank and Antonio Rava. (Photo: T. Jacob © Keith Haring Foundation)

5. Keep track of your wall

If you want to make sure the artwork is preserved in the best way possible, then keeping track of the work is essential. This can be difficult if you live far away from the place where the work was created. So if the artist can’t check the wall, maybe the client, wall owner or organization that commissioned the artist can do regular checks. To detect discoloration there’s no need to check it every day, roughly once every six months is enough. Photograph the artwork with the same camera that was used when the work was fresh. Take the pictures preferably in similar light conditions and always white balance your photos. This way you will be able to compare the pictures accurately and observe if there is change happening.

During the Master Class, Maria Chatzidakis recommended a nifty tool used for preventive conservation: a microscope clip that goes on your phone, available on e-bay for around five Euros. The microscopic observation can enable you to see damages before they are visible through naked-eye, such as paint cracks. So you can act towards conserving in an early stage, before it becomes too complex.

Microscopic observation of a wall's sample with paste-ups and stencils.

Microscopic observation of a wall’s sample with paste-ups and stencils. (Photo: Giovanna Di Giacomo)

This event was an unique learning opportunity. Many thanks to the teachers Maria Chatzidakis and Will Shank for their guidance and knowledge, to all the participants who shared relevant insights and to 20|21 Conservação e Restauro de Arte Contemporânea for making it all happen.

Curious to know more about what we learned from the Masterclass? E-mail Giovanna and she will be happy to share it!

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Headline photo: used by permission Scott M. Haskins (Fine Art Conservation Lab). Mural by Kent Twitchell in Los Angeles.

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After living in São Paulo for a few years, Giovanna fell in love with art in the streets. This motivated her to be involved with the production of events in the public space. Aiming to be more specialized in this topic, she did a Master in Arts and Culture in Rotterdam. There she explored the role of SAT's upcoming museum in the legitimation of street art. Currently, Giovanna works with collection management and research at Street Art Today.