Does Street Art Belong in a Gallery?

São Paulo's Choque Cultural Gallery prides itself on exhibiting works of pop art, photography, and sculpture by Brazil's top contemporary artists. But its current exhibit, Coletiva Choque, featuring works by the artists Zezão, Jaca, and Presto, looks like it'd be more at home on the walls of a favela. It consists of large, colorfully embellished murals, known as street art, that have been transferred to canvases. More inspirational than angry, they're a far cry from "tag" graffiti—hastily sprayed words on outdoor property that convey social and political messages.

São Paulo is not the only place where street art has made the leap from the inner city to the gallery. Exhibition spaces in Los Angeles, London, and New York City have all commissioned street artists to apply their talents to murals rather than on building façades or concrete barriers. Although the artistic style of the outdoor artwork is preserved, some argue that moving it indoors and changing its scale compromises its integrity and mission. Indeed, during Choque Cultural's Trimassa! street-art exhibit last fall, vandals broke in and spray-painted pichação, or tag graffiti, all over the works to protest the mainstream marketing of the art form.

Street artists themselves are ambivalent about shifting their venue. Eltono, an artist from Spain who paints geometric designs on houses, fences, and vans, likes to surprise passersby with creative designs in unsuspected locations. Speto, a Brazilian native who favors painting large and colorful illustrations of religious iconography, Amazonian scenes, and tribespeople, seeks to instill cultural pride in his compatriots—especially those who might not ever make it to a gallery or museum. By moving their work indoors, they fear that they will lose touch with their original artistic missions and the thrill of making art on unconventional surfaces.

But they also recognize that gallery representation can legitimize their art and win them new fans. CES 53, a Rotterdam-based collaborative artist who likes to mix pre-Colombian motifs with a hip-hop esthetic along with the styles of the 8 other artists that work with him in a street art collective named Lastplak, says that his own preparation for the group's recent show in Los Angeles helped him produce more sophisticated, polished work. Putting finer artistic materials to use, like paintbrushes instead of spray cans, he learned to hone his technique. In the process, he reached audiences who had never heard of him, or of Lastplak, who began to follow his gallery work as well as Lastplak's street work, which now includes a giant Noah's ark illustration on the front of a Rotterdam church. Eduardo Saretta, owner of Choque Cultural, says gallery attention has made street art "more professionalized," allowing artists to broaden their repertoires and sharpen their skills. It also allows them to earn money for their work so they can afford better materials.

Gallery exhibits can also help lead to prominent public commissions. São Paulo authorities have asked Speto to take on urban-beautification projects, such as dressing up the building exteriors in the Vila Madalena neighborhood. Officials in L.A., Chicago, Rotterdam, and Kiev have also invited him to use their streets as his canvas. He'll no doubt get more viewers than he would in any gallery.