Urbanism | The Politics of Street Art
[This post was first published at Spotted By Locals in April 2010]
It’s often covert, seldom pretty and almost always controversial. Its perpetrators have been branded as criminals and stars alike. Like it or hate it, Street Art, or graffiti, as it is usually called by opponents, is an urban phenomenon you cannot ignore.
From the East End of London to the suburbs of Paris and the alleys of Lisbon, urban authorities seem to be in a perpetual state of war with this phenomenon. Often seen as subversive and ugly, most people feel that street art is a nuisance; its creators a bunch of juvenile, jobless criminals; and that it has no place in modern, civilised civic space. Historically it has been associated with urban decline, poverty, crime, derelict spaces and ghettos; and all over the developed world, local governments have issued laws and decrees against it. Yet it not only continues to exist, it seems to be proliferating.
Of late, street art has created a few stars, however controversial, like Banksy and Shepard Fairey (of the Obama “Hope” posters controversy). In some cities, there seems to be a new quasi-formal lobby for street art rather than against it. This has taken shape in the form of hugely popular online communities like Wooster Collective, and physical galleries like Black Rat Press in East London dedicated to showcasing the works of veterans like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Brian Adam Douglas, d*face etc. all of whom have their origins in the murky world of graffiti. Far from being painted over, Banksy’s work is now protected in London and New York and the mainstream success of his recent film couldn’t be better proof of the fact that street art has managed to straddle over the boundary that has traditionally existed between the informal and formal worlds of art.
I have always been interested in street art as an urban phenomenon. Most of it is subversive and bordering on the criminal, no doubt, but can it also be an instrument of political and urban commentary? Can it be, in some way, ‘controlled’ as a device to foster dialogue between the communities that create graffiti and the authorities, rather as a form of cold war between them? And is the fact that some street art is crossing over towards a more formally recognised form of art in some places, a positive trend with significant cultural and political implications for the City?
I think it is possible – though not without its own set of challenges and limitations – that handled with the right balance of sensitivity and sternness, a dialogue between authorities and street artists (as representatives of disadvantaged communities in our cities, more often than not) could break the traditional barriers between them. What do you think?
For other posts on Street Art elsewhere on this blog, click here.