Fighting Poverty with Passion
For many, street art represents blight. It is a mark of destitution and a symbol of urban decay. But I believe that the argument against street art is misguided; it is not driven by a dislike of the art itself, but rather the underlying socioeconomic trends that allow street art to flourish.
It is common knowledge that street art is often confined to urban areas, and within these urban areas it is often confined to low-income neighborhoods and, most notably, abandoned buildings. When you think graffiti, I would bet good money a very specific picture comes to mind: desolate alleys of cracked concrete and rusting metal; shadowy shells of broken glass and unsettling silence; derelict hallways of a once-living city. And who could blame you for thinking such thoughts? After all, you’re not wrong. Graffiti is often clustered around what one might call ‘ghost towns.’ These ghost towns within cities were often prosperous and heavily populated at one time, but have since seen a decline in quality of life due to various factors of supply and demand.
Picture an industrial district at its peak. Shiny new housing projects have been constructed for war workers. The factories are booming, pumping out every kind of good the nation might need for the war effort. As the economy grows with the Second World War, families see increases in income, allowing shops and restaurants to line the streets. But after the war, whites flee to the newly constructed suburbs with federally backed loans. The wartime factories were no longer needed and shut down. Incomes fall with lack of opportunity and the shops and restaurants close. Suddenly you have a plethora of abandoned buildings that have no prospects for reinvestment. Segregation exacerbates the issue.
Graffiti saw it’s origins in New York City beginning in the 1960’s, as the final dividing lines were drawn between cities and suburbs. It flourished in the 1970’s as the strongest economy the world had ever seen tumbled. Any urban factories left standing closed down. It finally peaked in the 80’s, a decade many consider to be New York’s most depressed era. Since then, graffiti has flourished around the world in similarly ill-fated urban areas. Yet while many might see street art as a product of urban decay, it must be recognized for its virtues. First and foremost, it repurposes what is ugly and dilapidated. Every crumbling wall and rusting shutter is suddenly a canvas. Graffiti is traditionally created with vibrant and bold colors which are naturally aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. What would you rather look at? A wall of peeling paint or a wall of colors? Secondly, street art serves as a means for the marginalized populations in low-income communities to be heard. Graffiti can, and often does, carry a political message bemoaning the state of affairs that has led the city to crumble and its people to suffer. In a very literal way, graffiti serves as a label, forcing you to recognize the impoverishment against which it is painted. Finally, street art does, contrary to popular belief, take real talent. It usually involves multiple layers, lines, dimensions, and shading that, if accomplished in a more ‘traditional’ form, would draw the applause of any art critic.
The argument that street art is insubstantial is, frankly, ridiculous. Banksy is a famous example of an artist who has introduced street art into the mainstream. His work is heralded for its aesthetic and technical values as well as its bold political messaging. It even sells for millions, like art is apt to do. Yet people treat Banksy like he is the exception. The fact remains that many anonymous artists paint the streets of the world every day with vivid colors and dauntless messaging. Even if a tag does not hold a political stance, why is it not considered art? If art is a reflection of reality, or rather an interpretation of it, than is street art not a reflection and subsequently an interpretation of the socioeconomic hardships facing urban neighborhoods? If a tag is aesthetically pleasing, artistically impressive, and creatively original, does it not fit within our ideas of art? If an impressionistic painting of a barn is art, why not graffiti? Recent street mural projects in America have been applauded for their urban beautification efforts. They decorate the sides of otherwise bland and boring concrete slabs. What is the difference between a street mural and street art? Is there a difference? To restate my thesis, it is not street art that people dislike, because why would they? It checks all the boxes of what we hold art ‘should’ be. Rather, it is the underlying issues and what graffiti seems to symbolize that turns people against it.