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Top tips in Street Art Conservation

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Mural by Ken Twitchel in Los Angeles being restored (Photo: Scott M. Haskins)

Street art conservation can sound like a contradictio in terminis, given the ephemeral nature of the artform. However, this idea is rapidly changing, in parallel with the perception of street art as a cultural heritage. Nowadays, there are increasingly more artists, communities, institutions and governments looking for ways to make artworks in public space last longer. At the same time, 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 USA (Fine Art Conservation Lab), among others.

In this article, 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 whom? And why? How can we implement conservation in this specific case? The answers to these questions will serve as guidelines in different stages - from the decision of legal aspects to the artist’s creative process and the conservation itself.

Let’s say you are involved in a mural production. Then, it’s good to have a clear understanding of the interests of the stakeholders in the project. If this 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 coating on this artwork? This is an easy solution, which protects it from UV degradation and tagging. Coatings come in 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 some levels of air humidity can cause an unwanted milky effect in the coating.

In any case, it’s fundamental to define at an early stage who is responsible for executing the conservation intervention: the artist or an art conservator. And who should bare the costs? Think about allocating a budget for conservation and any necessary restoration. Include these details in the legal agreement between the artist and the client.

2. Get familiar with 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. And 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 manufacturer's website. Or ask your paint supplier for information about these binders and UV degradation. The latter may vary according to the color and paint type. Montana colors, manufacturer of the widely used MTN94 spray paint, created a useful data sheet with an index on color fastness of every color.

Color fastness data sheet from MTN94

3. Ask a professional for advice

Many 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, but the artist is in charge of 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.

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

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

Will Shank, the acclaimed restorer of Keith Haring’s murals, shared an interesting case at the Masterclass that illustrates that. Together with the art conservator Antonio Rava, he successfully used heated Agar-Agar to clean Haring’s "Tower" in Paris. This substance made the original colors used by Haring come back to life. Shank also exposed other unexpected materials and techniques used for conservation. For instance, while he was working at the San Francisco MOMA, he once had to bake his own bread, following a special recipe. With its breadcrumbs he was then able to remove degradation signs from a sculpture.

4. Document everything

Documentation is a key aspect in artwork's conservation. Getting back to Keith Haring’s wall restoration, the documentation of Haring’s creation of this work was essential in the restoration process. By consulting this material, the conservators had access to knowledge about paints, 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. Another important advice is to take pictures with a professional camera and posteriorly white balance their colors.

"Tower” from Keith Haring in Paris, after restoration (Photo: T. Jacob)

Registering how the artwork was created is indispensable. Don't rely on the fact that you will always remember how you did certain things. A time-lapse can be very useful to reconstruct the different steps in the making of the artwork. 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 an adequate restoration.

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 is no need to check it every day, roughly once every 6 months is enough. Photograph the artwork with the same camera used when the work was fresh. Take the pictures preferably with 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 5 euros. The microscopic observation can enable you to see damages - such as paint cracks - before they are visible through naked-eye. So you can act towards conservation in an early stage, before it becomes too complex.

Microscope clip in use (Photo: Giovanna Di Giacomo)

The Masterclass Conservation of Public Murals and Street Art was a unique learning opportunity. Many thanks to our teachers Maria Chatzidakis and Will Shank for their guidance and knowledge, to all the participants for sharing relevant insights and to 20|21 Conservação e Restauro de Arte Contemporânea for making it all happen.


Originally published on Street Art Today Blog on July 24, 2018.


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