What Happens When You Bring A Community Together Over Street Art?

In Sydney, where I live, the streets are becoming cleaner.

At Barangaroo, a huge new casino, hotel and entertainment complex is being built. Next door is a new park with a clean sandstone esplanade, where a photographer was nearly arrested for taking pictures without permission. At Milson’s Point, public housing along the waterfront, properties near the harbour bridge, are being sold off into private hands.

Slowly, in all the inner suburbs of Sydney, even the historically poor suburbs of the inner-west, people are being pushed further out from the city centre, and it is filling with new money, being made cleaner and trendier — and more sterile.

And the bane of clean city living is paint on buildings, especially edgy, political paint on buildings.

Unless you’re Banksy, and your hundred-thousand-dollar street art is protected with perspex glass, cities don’t want your art. Last year, New South Wales spent $34 million on removing graffiti — granted, most of these aren’t exactly Banksys (though even he has his artworks removed sometimes).

A lot of that $34 million of graffiti removed are just lame tags quickly sprayed by a 12-year-old on a train while their friend covers the security camera — but some of them really are art. That in itself doesn’t necessarily justify their existence, but if street art is good for our cities, then should we be removing it?

Spray your feelings

In Mexico City, the artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, who travels the world working with communities to make their own street art, spoke to Fusion about her latest project. It was a collaboration with a dozen Mexican street artists who spent four days teaching indigenous Mexicans art skills, and at the same time, learning the stories of how their communities had migrated to the capital in the 50s.

The artists learned their history and then helped them to come up with ideas of what they wanted to paint, and together they sprayed up a five-story mural that weaved together the groups rural histories and its communal future.

Photo: Fusion

The mural on the housing project wall gave them, as the words sprayed in their native language said, a common way forward:

“We are from Santiago Mezquititlan and we came to the city to fight for a more dignified life.”

It reminds me of what is probably Sydney’s most famous mural in Newtown; illegally painted in 1991, now heritage-listed.

Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

But these murals aren’t just pretty pictures or something local artists can congratulate themselves for. The research that has been done on how public art can benefit communities (and the research is spare) shows why.

The angel of Gateshead

In a town called Gateshead, in England, a huge steel angel with wings like a biplane looms over green pastures. When the giant, ‘The Angel of the North’, was first proposed in 1998, it was met with fierce opposition. Papers lambasted it as “stupid”, a “waste”, and “hell’s angel” — but soon it would become a rallying point for the town of Gateshead, an icon.

Research done in 2014 about the angel’s impact on community wellbeing found that not only did it give locals a sense of pride and ownership of their community, but the icon was also a “comforting symbol” because it was their “sign of homecoming” on the road home. Locals said it inspired debate and an interest in the arts, that it instilled confidence — and significantly, it “engendered wellbeing” by bringing people together and making them feel better about their community.

“The work acted as a kind of rallying cry and certainly, in ways that would be impossible to reproduce elsewhere or at another time, became the first step in the renewal of the North East … None of which was predicted or intended at the start.” Anthony Gormley, Artist and creator of The Angel of the North.”

The father of the angel, Anthony Gormley, later went on to install what was widely considered one of the most successful pieces of community art. For 100 days, on the empty fourth plinth at one of the corners of Trafalgar square (it was meant to be the stand for a statue of William IV, but has remained bare), Gormley invited members of the public to come and stand on the plinth to do whatever they wished. It was a chance for the “elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art”, as Gormley said. And since it was streamed live the entire time by Sky TV, it was something the whole nation could be involved in.

Perfect pairings of artists and locals

In the inner western Sydney suburb of Marrickville, a suburb known for its warehouses and factories and for avoiding the touch of the city’s push outwards, the same council who heritage-listed Newtown’s ‘I Have a Dream’ mural are now pairing artists with local homes and businesses to create street art designed by the community.

The Perfect Match program’s street artists (many themselves locals) get direction from the locals and work together on something that speaks for the town and for the individual community members.

Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

One local, who Sydney street artist Birdhat says was “pretty much down for whatever”, told The Sydney Morning Herald:

“[Birdhat] even added in our cats, and the lady across the road’s dog as cartoon animals, making it more personal for us.”

While Birdhat worked, the local said he probably met more of his neighbours in the four days they watched the artist work than in the three years he had lived in Marrickville.

It probably won’t turn Marrickville into a hub of economic activity, or fix budget woes, or drive GDP growth, but art developed by the community, with personal touches, is art that brings that place together, and it does have some serious social benefits.

In an age where the money for communities is hard won, and money for community art is even harder won, maybe we should rethink our penny-counting attitude to public art — and street art. Perhaps it is, in fact, worth spending a little more on.

Originally published on The Vocal by Jake Evans