Street art, graffiti and murals. It is known by several different names which are often determined in the eye of the beholder. There is no doubt, however, that street art plays an important role in many urban environments.
Take a walk through any major urban centre in the world and you will likely encounter the work of artists. Sometimes these works can appear in the most unlikely of places. The sides of buildings, warehouses and other large structures offer a blank canvas for artists to express their work in a public place.
At times this art can be elaborate work featuring intricate details. In other circumstances, it can be a hastily produced tag, still fresh with the splatters of a hardware store spray can.
Several street artists have gained fame for the work they produced. Possibly the most famous street artist of all is Banksy. The anonymous artist began to produce work in the British city of Bristol in the 1990s. Their work has become famous throughout the world, often featuring satirical or darkly humorous themes with the aim of spreading a political and social message. Art dealers have attempted to auction off their installations. Earlier this year, one of Bansky’s drawings, ‘Girl with Balloon’ was voted as the most popular art piece by the British public.
Access to Art
Art is often associated with the pleasures of the wealthy. Throughout history, benefactors and patrons have sponsored the work of artists. Owning a private collection was a symbol of wealth. The most generous could become the subject of the artist themselves. While public museums are widespread, there is a barrier with the mind and the eye view of the general public. A study of those who frequented art museums in the United States revealed that 92% were white. Despite the effort of many museums to be welcoming spaces for the wider public, they are still viewed as areas of the wealthy. Public art installations are funded by government and local authorities but are subject to wishes and perspective of those in power. In several cases, public art can become the source of controversy for public officials, who would rather err on the side of caution.
Into this void emerges street art. When a blank canvass is offered on a street level, these public spaces can offer a voice to artists who otherwise may not get recognition elsewhere. Accompanying the appearance of street art comes a debate over its suitability. Some recognise the effort and the expression of the artists, while others condemn the defacing of buildings, trains and bridges.
Yet street art often tells a story of the alternative. It offers a voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless. Take a look in a major city or urban centre and you will recognise themes and narratives that are outside of the mainstream. It is an opportunity to celebrate community heroes, to portray dreams or aspirations, or to highlight a problem. During the Troubles in the north of Ireland, communities used street murals as a means of expressing political messages. At a time when political representatives from the nationalist community were banned from television and radio, murals were used a political tool. In disadvantaged communities in the United States, murals are used to bond communities together. Chicago, a city scarred by poverty and violence uses street art as a means of community expression.
Street art is not limited to political messaging either. Culture is created by the collective experience of those living together as a community. The music that we create, the clothes that we wear and even the food that we eat is impacted by the culture of an area. Street art can be a visual manifestation of this experience, transforming ordinary street corners in a space for public expression. It also affords artists the opportunity to express outside of the commercial arena. Public spaces are teeming with billboards, paid for by companies to advertise products. Street art can be as legitimate as advertisements.
Some cities have embraced street art as a tool for urban regeneration. Heerlen in the Netherlands was a city with a large area of degenerated public spaces. This was due, in part, to the collapse of the local mining industry. The city established a forum to bring life back into areas by encouraging community art, especially murals. Bringing together several community groups and individuals, they collectively worked on these pieces of art. The use of street art could be a solution for other cities. Just as municipal authorities realise the need for public spaces such as parks and playgrounds, so too is there a need for visual stimulation.
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