Street artist: the game

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Street artist: the game

Being a street artist is no different than anything else in life. It’s a game.

All games have rules. If you want to win, you have to know the rules and play by them.

If you don’t like the rules and want to change them, you still have to know the rules.

The rules of a game are like gravity. Everyone is subject to them whether they recognize it or not.

The more you know the rules, the more you play the game, the better you will get at it.

As you play the game you gradually progress from being a beginner to the intermediate level. Some go on to become masters of the game.

A master does not just obey the rules. They rise above them. They have a strategy. Having a strategy is when you creatively use the rules to overcome the game and the other players.

Those who have mastered a game understand the rules on a different level than novice players. Novice players see the rules as limitations. A master sees the rules as freedom.

When you observe a master play a game, it looks effortless. That’s because he or she has made the rules an internal part of themselves, like breathing. They no longer have to think about rules. For them, it is not work. It is play.

Masters only reach that level of freedom by constant practice and continual learning.

The winners of a game are usually not the players with the greatest natural talent or the most advantageous background. Rather, they are the players that had the greatest desire to win, practiced the most, learned the most from the best sources and developed the best strategy.

Confidence is also a necessary ingredient for success. As the Roman poet Virgil wrote: “They succeed because they think they can.”

Some games are played as an individual, while others are team efforts. In team efforts, you win or lose both as an individual and as a member of a team.

In the street artist game, our success or failure to sell art is the result of individual effort alone.

The effort to win our rights and preserve them, is a group effort. We all share in the success or failure.

Just as each individual cell is completely dependent on the overall health of the human body, each individual street artist’s success or failure to sell their art is ultimately dependent on the ARTIST group’s effort to win and maintain our collective rights.

While the individual cell may not even know it is part of a larger body, it is still completely dependent on that body’s continuing health to survive. The fate of the body, will decide the fate of each individual cell.

If an individual street artist is very talented and highly skilled at selling, but we lose our rights, that individual will fail at the game right alongside the least talented and least successful street artist.

There are different levels of playing in any game.

There is usually an easy beginners level, then more and more complex levels requiring greater learning and practice. The degree of enjoyment and success that can come from playing a game increases in direct proportion to the level you are able to play it at.

In the street artist game, the simplest level of play involves just knowing the basic vending laws – the rules about where, when and how to legally set up an art display on the street or in a park. These are described in, “The Basics.” [1]

Most street artists do not know this beginners level very well. They play like someone who only bothered to read the first 3 pages of a 10 page rule book; they know some of the basic rules well, others incorrectly and the rest not at all.

To play in this way is a great personal disadvantage.

Like a baseball player that only knows how to hit the ball, but can’t catch it, you will eventually end up in trouble. That trouble will come in the form of summonses, confiscations or even an arrest for breaking the vending laws.

As important as knowing these basic vending law rules is, they are a lesser aspect of our game. A street artists’ individual money-making activity is completely dependent on another, completely different level of the rules.

That second level involves politics.

The NY Times described this in four editorials as, “The Street Art Wars.” [2] They weren’t describing vendors fighting over a spot.

In this level of the game there are two sides. We street artists are all together on one side trying to make a living.

On the other side are real estate interests, City Councilmembers, State Senators, the Mayor and the BIDs. These are the only “other players” in this game. They are your real competition for success or failure. They are playing to win, and their “win” totally depends on you losing your rights.

Most street artists and vendors mistakenly think that other artists and vendors are the “other players.” That’s like thinking that the other players on your own baseball team are the opponent. Can your team possibly win if you see your own teammates as the enemy?

If you don’t understand the rules of a game, you cannot possibly win. If you don’t know who the other players are or which side is which, your efforts (if you make any) will be useless or worse.

The ARTIST group has largely focused our resources on trying to get street artists to understand, and play, this second level of the game. That’s a good strategy because our individual financial success or failure completely depends on this other level being won.

The “rules” in this level involve proposed new vending laws, not just the existing ones.
Our opponents want to insert new rules in the game so that we will not even be allowed to play. They hope we won’t even notice until it is too late.

Ignoring these proposed new laws is like ignoring gravity. Gravity is invisible, tasteless, odorless and makes no sound, but it has a huge effect on you whether you know it or not.

Understanding this second level requires one to become familiar with these proposed vending laws and to be at least somewhat familiar with the players behind them.

Playing this second level of the game is all about trying to outsmart, outmaneuver and out strategize our opponents, the BIDs and their City Council fingerpuppets. To do that we send out emails and faxes, make phone calls, hold protests, display signs and otherwise
discredit, expose and confound our opponents’ efforts.

For us, the game is about selling art.

For them, the game is privatization of all public space.

Our right to freely use these spaces is the main obstacle to them winning the game. It is a multi-billion dollar endeavor for corporate control, and your little eight foot stand is preventing it.

This level of the game is a whole different kind of play (and fun) than just selling on the street – and it is 100% what makes our ongoing right to sell on the street or in a park possible.

If you are planning to be a street artist for just one day or one week, you may be able to ignore this second level of the game. Then all you need to concern yourself with is, “The Basics.” [1]

The reality is that most street artists – regardless of their belief that this lifestyle is just a temporary thing until they are discovered by an art dealer – will be working on the street or in a park for years to come; and that is a good thing!

Not even the best gallery gives you the exposure to the public that a second-rate street or park does. No gallery can ever compare to freely showing your art on West Broadway, outside the Met, in Union Square Park, in Chelsea, in Times Square, in Battery Park or any of the many other locations street artists congregate in.

While the mainstream art world may look down on us, the reality is that virtually every artist who tries to sell on the street makes sales, and most manage to earn a living at it.

While pondering how hard your life undoubtedly is in this economic downturn, remember this: most of the artists who ever lived never sold a single work of art in their entire lifetime. Most never got to show anywhere other than in their own home.

Despite the entire NYC government and the entire NYC real estate and business communities desperately trying to take away your rights for the past 15 years, you can still display and show your art 24 hours a day seven days a week in almost any public space in the art capital of the world. Having the streets and parks of NYC as your “gallery” literally makes the entire world your stage as an artist.

You have free access to 8 million residents and 30 million yearly visitors who can see your art, talk to you, commission you to create something for them or buy your existing pieces. This is literally the crossroads of the world. No other artists have what we have.

You get to set the price. You pay no commission, pay no fee, need no license and need no one’s permission or approval to engage in this activity. Unlike showing in a gallery, no one gets to judge if you or your work are “good enough” to be seen.

The entire history of art, of freedom and of culture have led up to this unique moment in time. You are the beneficiary of the work of hundreds of generations.

Will you play the game like a beginner, who barely knows the rules or the history, or will you aspire to be a master?

Will you leave this right stronger than you found it, or make a thousand excuses why you need do nothing to preserve it?

It’s only a game. Only you get to decide how you will play it. Let’s play to win.

(c) Robert Lederman, President of ARTIST


[1] You can get “The Basics” from a number of sources.
At the ARTIST website you will find it in the FILES section.
(only subscribed members can access the materials)
It is a summary in plain English of the vending laws that street artists need to know.

You can also directly find it as these sites:

[2] Those NY Times editorials and a very large number of other materials for street artists are available here:
Folder name: ARTIST materials
Website link:

Everything you might want to know on the BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) and their 15 years of effort to destroy street artists’ rights (your rights) is here:

List of Restricted Streets for artists

60 page DCA copy of the vending law with legal citations for artists


To subscribe send a blank email to

Reply to that email and you will be a member of ARTIST.



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