Google is trying to ramp up its street cred.
The tech giant is adding more than 5,000 images of public art to its Google Art Project searchable worldwide database, allowing people an easy way to see murals on the streets from Los Angeles to Berlin. The Google Street Art database, which launched in June 2014 with about 5,000 images, will have its expansion party Tuesday evening in the arts district of Los Angeles.
“By its nature, most street art is temporary and not really accessible,” said Amit Sood, head of the Google Cultural Institute, which aims to preserve and promote culture through online exhibitions. The street art project, Sood said, is “about trying to integrate art into your daily life.”
“We are launching digital exhibitions that actually put context to street art. ... It’s making art and culture more accessible.”
Visitors can click on locations on a Google map, browse art from around the globe and hear guided tours.
More than 80 organizations have partnered with Google on the project. Southern California institutions include the Wende Museum in Culver City, the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, the community revitalization group Coachella Walls and StreetArt Brokerage Firm.
The Google project will reach people who “would maybe not normally have access to this art or think about culture within our society,” said Carmen Zella, the founder of L.A.-based Do Art Foundation, one of Google’s partners.
Zella said the goals of her organization, which focuses on the promotion and creation of work visible in the public landscape, aligns with Google’s vision.
“This kind of documentation will give art reverence and longevity,” she said. “Because Google is a massive network, it can help give projects bigger legs and a bigger voice.”
Street art may be known for its do-it-yourself, anti-establishment bent, but corporate involvement is far from new. Paint companies and clothing brands have long sponsored high-profile street artists hoping to piggyback on artists’ perceived hipness or to get their products captured in Facebook and Instagram shots.
Downtown L.A.’s arts district, thick with public art murals, has become a popular location for shooting print ads and TV commercials.
L.A. artist and street art documentarian John Carr, who produced the 2012 “Voice of Art” series for Pharrell Williams’ YouTube channel, said the democratization of street art online has become a more visible way to view street art these days. How the works are showcased online, however, is a sensitive issue.
“There’s so much online coverage on blogs, Facebook, Instagram,” Carr said. “If Google’s providing one more platform, that’s probably a great thing. But when it comes to photography and online, copyrights — crediting the artists — are important. That’s where you have to be careful.”
The street art in the Google project cannot be downloaded, and Google credits all featured artists. Images in Street Art also include the title of the mural and the date it was created.
Some of the online exhibits include quotes from the artists. Others have audio commentary to provide additional context. One tab is dedicated to “artist stories,” in which visitors are encouraged to “follow street artists on their journey to create a piece of art.”
Still, some artists feel that Street Art is an example of yet another corporate giant attempting to capitalize on the popularity of street art.
Longtime L.A. muralist Willie Herrón III said Google asked him, through the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, to contribute images of his work to its online art initiative. He declined.
“I kind of shy away from being a part of anything that’s corporate because I feel they sort of jump on our talent as artists for their own benefit,” Herron said. “I’m kind of paranoid about public domain and fair-use issues. I’m not opposed to what Google’s doing; but I want to see how it does first, test the grounds, play it safe — and if I like what they do, then I’ll contribute my art work in the future.”
Oakland-based street artist Eddie Colla, who has public artworks up in Bangkok, Thailand, and in Paris, also was wary of the Google project.
“Is Google doing this out of sheer art appreciation? Maybe,” Colla said. “I don’t think they became the company they are because they’re not business savvy. My guess is there’s some angle on this to become the dominant site or portal that presents street art. There’s probably a monetary motive behind it.”
Other artists said they are on board with Google’s efforts to preserve street art, which often is at risk of being scrubbed out.
David Leavitt and David Torres, also known as Cyrcle, said Google’s idea "seemed cool" so they decided to join the initiative. Their collective will be profiled at Google’s event on Tuesday.
“I think a lot of the times when I am creating or making something, the overarching thought in my mind is, ‘What can I say or what can I do that will outlive me?’ ” Torres said. “Technology is now what carries history. ... It just made sense to create something that could then be translated and given to the world after I’m gone.”
Torres did acknowledge that seeing a great mural in person can be glorious — “something on a level that could never be done online.”
“Nothing lives up to the real mural,” echoed Leavitt. But online “is the next best thing.”
Street artist Thierry Guetta, also known as Mr. Brainwash, agreed.
“You do a wall that’s illegal, someone gets a photo, three days later it’s gone forever,” he said. “They are giving the art life forever.”