Insights — 28 April 2023
by Smita Submaraian
The city was never intended as a canvas. Outer city walls were designed and built as semi-sacred spaces—private property—and to mark or mar them in any way has always been a crime. Yet there they’ve tantalizingly stood, city block after city block of smooth, concrete, forbidden canvas.
Human spirit being what it is, creative expression always found a way onto the walls, morphing from petty crime into coveted commission in the space of a generation. Forced to be furtive, often under cover of night and in clandestine locations at first, what we call “urban art” got its start in the underground.
The city first became a canvas for those who were trapped there. Poverty and marginalization stifle the spirit and stoke indignation. Denied the space, tools and acceptance inside city walls and institutions, people took to the spaces around them. A natural response to being shut out, a critique of the established order, writing on walls is not only the oldest creative human expression, but also one of the earliest forms of activism. Graffiti is the genesis of the street art we know today—the expression of a marginalized culture, created to reclaim the very cities and institutions that shut them out.
Graffiti is one of the five fundamental elements of Hiphop culture (along with emceeing, djing, beatboxing and breakdancing). It grew out of America’s melanated community in New York’s inner cities in the 1970s—a creative outlet for those suffering from severe socio-economic disparity and segregation. Founding father of Hiphop KRS-1 famously said, “Hiphop reconnects us to our humanity.” It’s about basic human expression that doesn’t depend on technology; about the common things humans do—rap, dance, draw. When it comes to drawing, the most natural position—what every child will do before being conditioned to sit at a desk—is stand in front of a wall. The first thing a child is inclined to write while standing there, is their name.
Voice of the People
Like any other art form, graffiti is self-expression on a wall. Its use in the fight to reclaim city walls for the canvases they were destined to be is rooted in a matter of principle. Any building paid for with public taxes should belong to the people who pay them; those who live and die in their shadow. That is the philosophy of the underground. Due to the high risk of arrest and imprisonment graffiti writers face, they paint in places the average, non-marginalized city dweller would never go—subterranean spaces, tunnels, abandoned industrial buildings, or on the outskirts of town in places like train yards, where law enforcement is less frequent.
For graffiti writers, the first piece to perfect and share widely is their “tag” (signature) which often is all they have time for. A writer’s tag gets them known within their community, builds their identity and reputation as a street artist, and gives them a voice with which to critique or challenge other artists. When graffiti started popping up it was shocking, both intentionally and by virtue of it’s illegal nature. One had to be well versed in its culture just to be able to read it, let alone appreciate its meaning. In the eyes of mainstream society and municipal representatives, tags are simply vandalism—a constant plague. Natural for the cultural elite to feel offended by such large-scale, impossible to ignore art that is so crystal clearly not created for them.
The Underground Edge
“Graffiti in its purest form is youth culture, done by writers, for writers,” says Melissa Proietti, who has a PhD in Education and is director of Montreal’s Under Pressure graffiti jam/Hiphop festival, now in its 27th year, and the longest running of its kind in the world. “It’s not about attracting an audience, but giving space to artists to indulge their passion,” says Proietti. The illegal nature of graffiti writing prompted rules and codes of conduct within the community. A festival begun in 1996 by two writers as an undercover jam in a vacant parking lot unbeknownst to the city, Under Pressure has always sought to maintain the original rules of the street. No names announced (full respect for anonymity). No guidelines or direction (artists paint what they feel). No security (that’s just asking for trouble).
Until its ninth edition in 2005, Under Pressure was run completely illegally. It fought the city for its legitimacy, which it eventually won, likely because of the deep community involvement of its co-founder. Sterling Downey transitioned from graffiti writer and urban festival promoter to municipal councilor and interim mayor of Montreal in 2013. By then, the city had warmed up to the festival. Perception of writers was beginning to shift from vandals to artists. If not understanding, there was at least a truce.
“Look at the streets of any city,” says Arcadi Poch (pronounced “Pock”)—a sociocultural explorer devoted primarily to the research and development of art projects in public spaces, founder of Barcelona-based Vogelkop Studio, documentarist, and author of three books on the topic of urban creativity—“you can perceive the health of a democracy by the political paintings.” Poch has researched and documented the most provocative, thoughtful, at times disruptive, often damning street art, from LA to Brazil, New York to Kiev, Bethlehem to Hong Kong, by some of the world’s most controversial and talented artists. As with those he represents, Poch’s view of the city as canvas extends far beyond its mere walls. His curation powerfully illustrates the depth of dimension in spirit, intellect and practice street artists share with their communities; they function as both thought leaders and mouthpieces for the people, often anonymously, without uttering a word.
Poch’s work brings us back to the most fundamental and critical question of all surrounding urban art and creativity: Who is it for? The simple answer is, for the community from which it sprung, the corner of the city in which it lives, and the people who call that corner home. Poch deems mural art a success when where it is found is the only place in the world it could make sense to exist. He isn’t interested in decorating cities. He approaches urban art and creativity from a neo-situationist philosophy, founded in theories by Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle) and Jean Baudrillard (The System of Objects) that profoundly critique consumer society. Neo-situationism returns creativity to a more pragmatic approach, where three-dimensional micro-hubs of education, inspiration or play are created from the cityscape itself, in a way that improves the lives of people where they are.
The Crossover Complex
As with many cultural movements that begin in the underground, the crossover of street art into mainstream culture is complicated. There’s a certain status associated with risky business. Society glorifies gangsters. The outlaw aesthetic eventually works its way into the mainstream zeitgeist because proximity (albeit safe) to such danger and edginess gives us a thrill. Once sufficiently popularized, appropriation ensues, often to the detriment of the source. One can’t speak of urban art crossover without bringing up Banksy. His intelligent, subversive, stencil-style social commentaries emerged from the Bristol underground. Today, his highly political works sell for millions, even when the surface they’re on must be removed with them. He has become a household name. Yet true to culture, his identity remains unknown.
Gentrification is one of the biggest challenges of street art crossover. In 2008, Banksy threw a street art fest (the Cans Festival) in London’s Leake Street Tunnel, a dark, grimy, 300-metre-long tunnel beneath Kings Cross station that had been a hot spot for graffiti artists for years, and the city took notice. Suddenly, painting in the tunnel was legalized, an agency was hired to professionally light it, tourists began arriving in droves and the area was earmarked for a “regeneration project.” Trendy restaurants and bars now populate the area, which has lost much of it’s street cred and edgy cachet, but at least London street artists have a legitimate space in which to paint unmolested.
Entire neighborhoods in the US owe their transformation to street art, for better or for worse. Wynwood, Miami is the story of a developer who recognized the value of street art and how to leverage it to ensure that a mixed-use development planned in a derelict part of the city would become the next trendy neighborhood. Bushwick, New York, a borough that suffered some of the worst inner-city riots, fires, blackouts, and drug and gang violence, was regenerated to the point of gentrification by a street art movement. Begun by a lifelong resident who found strength and a sense of belonging through its community of artists, murals done for love segued into paid advertisement as developers capitalized on a streetscape that had suddenly skyrocketed in cultural value.
There are tragic stories like New York’s 5 Pointz—a clutch of industrial buildings turned spectacular street art compound, razed to make room for condominium towers (the artists sued and won), and then there are also beautiful stories of regeneration. Following the 2011 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, street art was vital in helping the city heal and move forward.Already a growing movement in the country, urban mural art was able to salvage the community’s self-image and rebuild fresh character for the city quickly after so much was lost so suddenly.
In 2015, the city of Montreal, and by then many other cities around the world, started its own Mural Fest, earmarking high visibility walls all over the city for painting by various high-profile artists. This nascent concept of the ‘city as gallery’—an open museum—is a mistake, according to Poch, “because we are building cities, not museums.” The result can be art created with no knowledge or relevance to the community in which it’s found, unconscious of its own raison d’être, save to generate tourism dollars. In contrast to Under Pressure, which still operates almost exclusively on volunteer energy (writers are unpaid), Mural Fest receives copious funds from a host of sponsors and piggybacks on the Formula One Grand Prix and street market weekend, hailing itself as “a celebration of the international urban art movement.” For UP devotees, there’s only one word for it: wack (Hiphop slang for tasteless).
The Tourism Trap
Spain was once the vanguard of European muralism and Barcelona was its epicenter. The Barcelona graffiti scene, if you could call it that, started around 1985. It wasn’t until Hiphop caught on through the 1988 documentary “Style Wars” that graffiti, b-boys and rap took off within Barcelona’s youth culture. At the time, the city had no rules regarding street art and a highly permissive attitude towards it, and so it flourished. Graffiti artists from around the world came to Barcelona to paint, and people came from all over to photograph it. A municipal representative once called Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, a Cuban-born, NYC-raised former culture jammer, and one of the city’s most famous urban artists, to offer him a prime city property wall to paint. It was a place and time where artists could take theirs, and work without fear. The level of appreciation was high, and the quality of street art rose to meet it. Barcelona became the street art capital of Europe, and to those who knew it then, 2000 to 2005 were its golden years. Then, tourism happened.
Or rather, in 2005 the city suddenly awoke to the steady increase in tourism and the revenue potential it represented, and began seeing street art as a threat. Speculation scared the municipality into ‘cleaning up’ the city. In 2006, street art in Barcelona was criminalized. Police began warning artists they would be fined, then practically overnight cracked down. Every last wall was painted over. An original Keith Haring mural right next to the contemporary art museum—gone. Countless works from the biggest names in local and international street art unceremoniously vanished. Barcelona went from a city of explosive color, high art and intrigue to an ordinary, beigey-grey, soulless cityscape. The hurt and loss inflicted on the artist community was immeasurable. The tourists changed too. Gone were those who came to appreciate and contribute, replaced by the stereotypical gawkers that locals try to ignore.
Since street art became a crime, Barcelona has been at war with street artists—a regressive scenario similar to so many modern cities. The municipality began spending upwards of €4 million per year to erase tags. Arcadi Poch’s 2015 street art documentary BCN: Rise & Fall tells the cautionary tale of Barcelona’s dismantled street art scene. Rodríguez-Gerada describes it as the Old Guard attempting to re-envision a ‘clean’ city void of dialogue. The connection to the artists and people was severed; profit took precedence over community. Was it worth it? Barcelona now heaves under the weight of oppressive tourism, the type locals flee but can never escape. Fifteen years later, mural art is exploding all over the world, while a former leader of the genre sits on its most talented hands.
Philadelphia is the story of a city that brought its war with graffiti to an end by employing the very ‘vandals’ it had been fighting—to paint murals instead. The very first mural of smart Mayor Wilson Goode’s strategy was a three-story portrait of basketball legend Dr. J in a suit. People were positive it would be defaced by graffiti. It wasn’t. Today, Philadelphia counts well over 3,000 murals in all parts of the city. The city ceded its walls to so-called vandals only to discover they were artists, when given space, time and funds. The key to Philadelphia’s singular success in its street art program is two-fold: community representation, and a combination of private and municipal funding. The latter is what Philly’s Mural Arts program founder and former LA muralist Jane Golden credits for the program’s endurance. Murals do cost money, but when done in concert with the people, the payoff is truly priceless.
On Canada’s West Coast, the city of Vancouver, seeking ways to prioritize reconciliation with First Nations, ceded multiple large public spaces to Native artists and their vision, through a collaboration with the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF). Founded in 2016 as a grassroots street festival, the VMF has grown into a registered non-profit art consultancy and production agency dedicated to the city’s cultural and artistic development. Co-Founder Andrea Curtis describes part of the VMF mission as helping those who were here before and deserve to be seen to reclaim “visual sovereignty” over the urban landscape that claimed their ancestral territories. None of the murals done in this spirit have been defiled, supporting the claim that meaningful art reduces vandalism by 95%.
For the first time in modern history, colonizers and marginalized worked together to create a public mural art series in collaboration with acclaimed Musqueam weaver and graphic designer Debra Sparrow. Entitled “Blanketing The City,” the project helps magnify the visibility of indigenous people in Vancouver. Three First Nations communities came together to bring the work to life, recognizing how important such efforts are in solidifying their own identity and sense of belonging to the city. It’s also a way for First Nations to share with each other the strength it takes for their communities to survive and hopefully thrive within the cold, concrete walls of city and society.
Beautify Earth is a Californian, grassroots organization based in Santa Monica whose goal is to paint cities with messages of beauty and positivity. After gaining a deeper understanding of the logistical nightmare mural production can be, Beautify used technology to streamline production and normalize a “right way” of doing things that places community and local artists at the heart of each project. Communities reach out to Beautify and vice versa, using storytelling to create consensus around a cause. The result is a unique community flavor with a story that relates to and resonates with residents.
During the pandemic, Vancouver Mural Fest took the opportunity to show how art can lift the mood of a city whose downtown had been boarded up during lockdown. Artists covered the boards with over 60 murals offering messages of empathy, gratitude and hope. For Melissa Proietti of Under Pressure, the pandemic helped highlight the meaning of accessibility and sharing space. It provided an important time to reinvestigate questions around public art, how to do it meaningfully and carefully invest in communications and structure.
A lesson that underground, grassroots and community-focused urban art can teach cities is that doing art strictly for money’s sake may bring in tourism dollars, but ultimately doesn’t contribute to the city’s long-term vitality nor replenish its communal cultural font. Offers Proietti, “Cities need to look, listen and identify with what’s already happening in their communities. Gain perspective, feedback and learn from their constituents. If a city legitimately wants to support street and public art do it because they see the value, don’t simply try to steal the model. Culture can’t be copy-pasted.”
Andrea Curtis of VMF wants cities to explore how they can move from gentrification to urban renewal through art. For this to occur they must first ensure equity in representation—First Nations, residents and the concerns of the community. Lasting, positive impact can happen through art, which Curtis describes as a Trojan Horse effect. One well-placed, meaningful, community-focused mural can push needed conversations to the fore and have a positive economic impact on an area. VMF is working more and more with urban developers, helping with curation in new communities and campaigning for a bylaw shift to make it mandatory for developers to use public art on hoarding.
Evan Meyer of Beautify Earth believes the culture of cities needs to be worked into municipal bureaucracy. Cities must ask themselves if they’re set up to care? To take risks? City culture is at the mercy of a bureaucratic culture. When it comes to being disruptive with art, cities are cautious. To him, the point of beautifying cities is to inspire—places like schools and hospitals, for example, should have color!
According to Arcadi Poch, the biggest enemy of the contemporary city is hegemony. Cities are becoming too similar, the same tropes are everywhere. Each must value what makes it unique, a singularity that is hugely important to a city’s identity. Authentic street art, the kind generated in collaboration with local communities, can create that singularity, almost single-handedly. Knowing which artists are talking about important local realities and staying connected to them is the most critical part of curating, according to Poch.
The modern mural art movement worldwide owes it’s existence to underground culture and those artists who first dared risk their lives and freedom to express themselves on a wall. Their persistence caused the world to realize that high art wasn’t strictly the domain or property of museums and institutions. They proved that street art had enough curbside appeal to generate tourism en masse, while representing and being a voice for the people. They showed us how it’s done at their own expense and watched as the very museums and institutions that ignored them began following suit. Cities owe it to the artists and communities within their walls to cede public spaces, open a dialogue and work together so we might all reconnect to our humanity.