Art Defines Us
When one visits a new place, they can begin to get a grasp of what defines the area through exploring. One can visit landmarks, museums, go on city tours, eat at the best spots, or walk around downtown. Tourists can find out where to go through recommendations, advertisements, or by researching. It has become more common to look up what to do online rather than referring visitor brochures and pamphlets. Nonetheless, the best spots to visit will be found; place after place, the visitor can get a feel of the city.
There are unconventional urban components, however, that influence a person’s perception of a city that aren’t always advertised by a website or company. In our modern world, street art has increasingly taken over the urban landscape. It has historically been treated as vandalism, but expressive graffiti is now widely accepted throughout the world. Street art has been adopted by societies as defining their landscapes, received push back by local government, and revolutionized the concept of artistic expression.
“One of the first things I like to do when I check a new city out is see what cool art spots I can hit up, the cheaper the better. Obviously what I love about street art is that anyone can view it. Accessibility is key, you know? Especially if you’re trying to bring the community together. What better way than to give the people free and beautiful art?”
-Daniel Mira, frequent Austin visitor
The History of Street Art
Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Traditionally, artistic mediums depended on drawn figures, paints on canvases and manageable materials that could be sculpted into a product. By the early 1900’s artistic movements such as Dadaism and Modernism took over the meaning of valued aesthetics. Modernism argued the purpose of art is not relational but solely dependent on the aesthetic of the product. The prestigious claim pushed artists like Andy Warhol to disprove the limitations- anything can be art.This resulted in a indistinguishable appreciation, since it seemed “artworks…could look like, or be, anything” (Riggle, 2010). Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from the Dada movement, for example, was able to achieve one of “the most and absurd art event(s) of the 20th century” by taking a urinal, labeling it, and calling it art (Mann, 2017). Toilets, cardboard boxes, glass shards, and almost any found material that could be transformed into design began to trickle into museums worldwide. The consequence of a broader artistic spectrum lead to a proliferation of styles, media, movements and influences (Riggle, 2010).
Beyond the installation of everyday objects and events in gallery spaces as a response to the modernist critique was now reversing art into everyday life. Nicholas John Riggle, author of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, asks us consider the following:
Imagine an intentionally anonymous art practice, most of whose works are destroyed by nature and, often intentionally, by humankind. This anonymity and ephemerality hinders the construction of a master narrative. Imagine a practice whose artworks are largely disconnected from the artworld because their significance hinges on their being outside of that world.
This disconnection impedes the artworld’s involvement in the practice and ensures that the works enter the museum, gallery, and art market only at great, if not total, cost. Imagine an art practice that, instead of delighting merely the refined sensibilities of an elite few, has the power to engage, effortlessly and aesthetically, the masses through its manifest creativity, skill, originality, depth of meaning, and beauty.
What he beautifully asked us to picture is the practice of street art. This can be referred as independent public art, post-graffiti, neo graffiti, public art, etc. It is any visual art designed for public spaces, usually with no official permission, and intentionally made outside of the traditional museum or gallery venue. By the turn of the century, it has transformed into “complex interdisciplinary forms of artistic expression” (Maric, 2014).
Street art can be found in the form of graffiti, large or micro scaled murals, enlarged paintings, stencils, public installations, and even performative works. Surely enough it is now under the classification of Contemporary Art. What has conventionally been treated as vandalism due to its public location and expression, is now differentiated by the aesthetic or message. “Graffitti straddles the line between pure art and pure vandalism,” Lu Olivero comments in his New York Times article titled Graffiti Is a Public Good, Even As It Challenges the Law (2014). Though it sometimes “represents a challenge to the law,” through social commentary over policy implementation, it may serve as a “public good through its nuanced social commentary and its artistry” (Olivero, 2014).
The earliest sightings of street art were on sides of buildings and trains in the form of graffiti; the movement was initiated by New York gangs around the 1920’s and 1930’s (Maric, 2014). By the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a significant climax in street art. Young people created a movement and “responded to their socio-political environment,” by taking their “battle for meaning into their own hands” (Maric, 2014). There are reportings of World War II graffiti done by those opposing the war and blatantly hating the president either by civilians or troops expressing their anarchist ideals. A famous tag around the 1970’s found across American towns was “Dick Nixon before he Dicks You,” putting into words the hostility found in the counterculture of young Americans (Russell, 2017).
In the 1960’s Paris revolutionary and situationist slogans appeared around the streets after student protesting. London underground stations had inscribed admirations of artists such as “Clapton is God,” referencing the musician Eric Clapton. All over the world, phrases mirroring culture’s thoughts and emotions appeared in innovative forms.
If art is a way of expressing a human’s mind in a creative way, then a city’s street art can surely be a form of defining its urban makeup.
Public independent art can serve as a catalyst of creating social and culturual capital and attaining significant community goals. Visitors, from afar or local, can equally gain “new knowledge or cultural capital,” or even experience the Mozart effect (Guetzkow, 2007). The Mozart effect is best expressed using children models but takes place when after listening to artsits like Mozart, or exposed to similiar artistic stimuli, the listener or viewer, shows an improved “performance on visuo-spatial reasoning tests” (Guetzkow, 2007).
In the modern world, street art has revolutionized artistic expression. It purposefully integrates in a widely viewed realm in order to experienced by all. Contrasting traditional art venues, independent public art is accessible to anyone. Visitors from other countries and city locals equally have the opportunity to come into contact with the creator’s work. Its purpose is to “draw upon what the viewers know,” whether it be a political movement or pop culture trend, “and manipulate the physicality of the subject” (Bisbee, 2013). The main goal is to transition from private, controlled spaces and enforce “anti-commercial… anti-advertising” through ironically advertising the counter thought. Its presence has proven to effectively “revitalize neighborhoods and promote economic prosperity” (Guetzkow, 2007).
The thing about street art, or at least what defines street art in my perspective, is that in most cases it is done without the authority of the law, on public buildings. Not always, but in some if not most cases.
The reason why to me this is so important is because constantly the government and society are filtering the people to images, music, people, and messages that only they define as acceptable, and we don’t even notice it.
In my eyes street art is something that speaks up against all those things. It’s something that often opens my eyes to the true beauty in life, or just exploring another side to everything; creating an alternative view.
Why would the government and oppressing figures with power want the people to see such messages ?
-A Passionate Lover of Art, 2017
The placement of the work is either methodically installed, such as Banksy’s work, a famous anonymous English street artist, or chosen at random. Either way, its presence creates a sense of place. Places can be broad in application, they are fusions of human and natural order, the significant centers of the immediate experiences of the world (Visconti et. al, 2010). An area’s place can be defined by socially created borders- such as local murals. When a mural is sight-specific, it can help add on to the definition of the community.
Local Austinite, Mattie Hayhurst, shares “A succesful mural is created by someone who understands the heartbeat of the spot, the true meaning and intent can only be created by art made specifically for that area.” The location of the place matters, it serves as the core of the intetion for what the piece represents. After the piece is exposed, it is up to the artist to make any profit off if it, social or economical.
In May of last year a famous mural on the corner of Chicon and 12th street was painted over. It had paintings mostly of the African-American music legends, “something nice and unique for the East side” (Osborn, 2017).
Gentrifiers have literally been whitewashing murals this past week, starting with removing the image of a Black woman put up by Mamas of Color Rising and then today, as someone is seen painting over images of Black musicians like Michael Jackson and Tupac. — Community Facebook post, 2017
Gentrifiers couldn’t even bare to see murals with colored people, apparently painTing over solidified the gentrification brought by the “hipster corner” (O’Donnell, 2017). Local Austonites lost their minds, many people from the East Austin neighborhood posted on social media their anger towards whitewashing and took everything into consediartion for all affected parties. As a community and persons of color they knew they could not take the situation lightly. They worked together to get the mural back to reflect the history of Austin culture which was their intention from the start.
Participation in the arts, whether creating it or visting site, improves “physical and psychological well-being,” in part due to its ability to “reduce stress… leading to improved happiness and life satisfacton.” Art additionally “widens and strengthen bonds, which inderectly improves health” (Guetzkow, 2007). The creator proves actual improvement as “organism(s) respond with changes in the humoral nervous system— for example, verbal expression of traumatic experiences through writing or talking improves physical health, enhances immune function, and is associated with fewer medical visits” (Guetzkow, 2007). One can only imagine the health effect of creating elaborate pieces has on artists, especially when expressing the oppression commonly faced by marginal communities. Recognition geared towards the poor “provides opportunity … to success and gain some positive public recognition... improving their sense of control over their life and self concept” (Guetzkow, 2007).
The arbitrary nature of how graffiti is removed or preserved highlights an interesting dissonance: the social-political oligarchy rejects the artist, and the conditions that create the art, unless the art is somehow accepted on the establishment’s terms (Olivero, 2014). Street art can either be comissioned by the city or created on spot. Local artist Alexis Morris shares, “I don’t like the art that gets commissioned- it feels like it’s stupid. Where’s the intent? What was the purpose? To reach out to the community or get money? It feels to me more of a way for artists to self promote rather than to express. I prefer random spots around the city where you’d least expect to find art over tasteless sites paid by the city, but that’s just me.”
Growth of independent public art plays a role in “challenging the status quo, demonstrate the power of art, and its ability to create dialogue” (Olivero, 2014). The presence of public art sited provide an apportuity to “draw people together who would otherwise not be engaged in constructive social activity” (Guetzkow, 2007). Additionally it can build onto community identity, people will adopt the mural as a cherished site, and can even have an economic impact. Audience dollars can be directed towards product advertising the visited site, such as coasters and mugs displaying the art piece. Karina James shares what adds on to the importance of graffiti cites is that “artists do their work for free, it matters because it means something to them. When they are paid for production of a product, it loses its value. The only reason objects with the art sell so much is because its representational.”
Street art can provide an experience of “collective efficacy and civic engagement,” as members come together in one spot to admire the same piece, “which spurs participants to further collective action” (Guetzkow, 2007). Though the artistic vandlaism may have a variety of benefits to a community, there is still pushback. Surely enough, the process and product is controversial and at times receives opposition.
Conflict with Municipal Government
On April 2014, a spray-paint stencil painting appeared on a doorway of the Broad Plain Boys Club in Bristol, England. It had a solid black background with a woman and man embracing another while holding their cellphones over each other’s shoulders. The painting quickly gained its title Mobile Lovers and soon came about that the famous Banksy created it. Banksy is one of the United Kingdom’s most successful modern graffiti artists, though his identity is still a mystery, his fame is widely renounced. It was the sites situation that made the painting appear. The Boys’ Club was “facing financial difficulties,” and apparently Banksy had a close affiliation to the program and wanted to bring attention to the problem (Salib, 2015). The door was quickly removed and to be auctioned off after discovering it was from a famous artists, but the city claimed it was their property. Banksy himself wrote a letter to the city government, reclaiming the piece, wishing to give any funds raised from the piece to the Boys’ Club. Other of his works have “been subject to ownership disputes,” especially since it is on city property (Salib, 2015). The conflict rises since these artworks are made by people wishing to express themselves, but at the end of the day, their work has been unsanctioned.
In the beginning of 2018, the city of Austin announced they were relocating its famous graffiti park and replacing it with a multi-family unit. They say that the HOPE Outdoor Gallery has no “architecture, historical or known archaeological significance” (Bien, 2018). Despite the daily flocks of tourists and locals to the area, the city finds no significance in its presence. Though true, the location serves no economical benefit to the city, it does not mean it lacks purpose. One of the first things visitors are referred to if they look up fun things to do when visiting Austin is the Hope Gallery, or commonly known as the Graffiti Park on Castle Hill. It is free, therefore accessible. It is open for the public to join on art making. The aerosol cans used to create the artwork are sold on site by local vendors, or can be brought in from stores.
Though graffiti is illegal, this is one of the few places where anyone can freely express their thoughts and feelings. The deteriorating walls are constantly changing as the public adds on with zero fear of fees. Public art “attract(s) residents and businesses to (re)locate to a community by improving its image and making it more appealing,” as found in Castle Hill. “It could attract investments,” that make the community more confident about their input therefore “improving a community’s image” (Guetzkow, 2007). For example, people might place pop-up shops beside public art locations and have local vendors. Products sold can be in the form of magnets, picture frames, coasters, pins, handbags, candles, any object promoting nearby art or their own work. Austin has a lot of these local vendors, any given day you can find a group of these at Castle Hill under their tents showcasing murals that have previously been painted there.
Luckily, after its demolition it is planned to be relocated to Carson Creek Ranch. Executive producer of the project, Andy Cheatham, states the “new, evolved art park will be a special place for the community to call their own,” as if Castle Hill didn’t already. Anyone can go up to a section of the park and tag their own work. I recall one of my first times visiting Austin we went to the grafftti park only to find a secrete proposal at the top of the hill. Guests from all around the area waited patiently as the bride-to-be arrived to the location. My friends and I had no idea who these people were, neither did the group waiting behind us. Despite our unfamiliarity, we collectively shared the moment because we saw all the hard work put in the gesture. After the proposal a flock of vistors took turns in mocking a proposal infront of the cute panda asking Will you marry me?
In Austin, street art flourishes. As one passes Guadalupe, on the corner of 21st is the well-known wall art on the side of a thai restaurant saying “Hi, how are you?” For some reason, it gained fame after it randomly appeared one day and serves as a logo for Austin. It can be found on t-shirts, koozies, stamps, stickers, coasters, think of any tourist trinket and it is sure to be found. As are other pieces like “You are my Butter Half” on MLK, in front of Epoch, “Wasabi” on 7th street, “Goldfish” on Cesar Chavez, and many more. The city’s plethora of street art can be found on many websites or more than likely randomly encountered when least expected.
Austin is not alone in this, big cities like New York, Denver Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago likewise are filled with independent public artwork. Each city’s working is personal to their landscape. The subjects range from advertising a restaurant, like Thai how are you, to critiquing local zoning plans that caused heavy gentrification. San Francisco’s murals in the Mission District heavily comment on the dispersal of previous minority residents pushed out by the influx of tech companies.
One day on a visit to Balmy Alley in the Mission district, my friends and I decided to set time aside to review each mural. They spoke of mostly issues surrounding gentrification amongst the latinx community. Tears were shed amognst members of our group, hugs were exchnaged, and there were deep moments of silence. In one of our lamentatios, a group of gringo tourists popped out of nowhere to take a picture infront of a mural; it was a picture of a mother and child with a sad letter of deoprtation. Well, as soon as they congreagetted the photographer said “In the count of 3 say Tequila.” 1–2–3! “Tequila!!!”
Could you believe it? The same members of the white population that caused the displacement were treating the walls as if they were something to admire and appropriate rather than contextualize the issues at hand. It sickened me, but what can you expect. Its not like they will ever understand what it means to be pushed away from your homes.
I grew up in the Bay Area and visits to my aunt’s place at the Mission District played a huge role in my childhood. I remember weekly trips to Pan Lido, the local panaderia at the corner of Van Ness Ave and 22nd Street. Waiting for my tia’s clothes to dry at the Washetira would involve either visits to the mercado or the taqueria next door. Two winters ago I ago, I chose to revisit this cherished spot only to be utterly disappointed with the development that has occured over the years I have been gone. Barber shops and candle stores now took place of laundry centers and markets. My favorite pupuseria was closed down to be replaced by a quirky book store. Murals in several alleys made it clear to visitors of the city how hurt local and historic families had been by the influx of tech companies. I understand that it is to provide incoming residents homes, but it leaves those who cannot afford a different place without homes.
The implication of the artwork may be controversial or just for pure aesthetic. The point is that is was created by an artist that wanted to be heard or seen. They placed their works outside of interior spaces into an area that can be admired by all. They revolutionized art from being in a traditional indoor space, into an area where anyone can experience the subject. Those who view it have adopted them as admirable pieces, millions of pictures can be found on visitors’ social media accounts with either witty comments or deep monologues, or maybe sometime a caption is not needed. The piece speaks for itself, and it defines its space.
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