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Art On the Streets

In urban spaces, art is everywhere, from hastily executed graffiti on walls and bridges to prominent full-wall murals. Urban art is part of a city’s character, a signature of urban life and, depending on the circumstances, of urban vibrancy or decay. Its legal and illegal presence in cities is ubiquitous and undeniable, and has been the source of simultaneous condemnation by authorities as well as appreciation and even obsession by many. But even though it is controversial and presents a perpetual challenge for law-enforcement, it also presents a wealth of opportunities for cities to foster more civically invested communities and vibrant spaces.

Generally speaking, most urban art is a crime, although it exists on a spectrum of different forms and levels of illegality. Few cities, if any, allow their residents to express themselves on any public or private surface of their choosing, and most cities will fine anyone caught making marks on someone else’s property, though it also isn’t unusual to find areas where urban art is legal, usually on privately owned walls or in community-sanctioned areas. Graffiti laws are often tied to both property rights and to the influential Broken Windows Theory, a highly contested sociological theory that claims small-scale lawlessness and decay, including graffiti, lead to a lack of investment in a community, which eventually engenders more violent crime. Since the boundaries between graffiti and street art are hard to define, the theory, when applied to the law, includes any unsanctioned urban art. In Providence, for example, strict graffiti laws prohibit any “unauthorized inscription,” stipulating up to $1,000 in fines and up to 200 hours of community service as punishment. “Graffiti,” which in Providence and many other cities legally includes any form of street art done without consent of the owner of the surface, is considered a “a public nuisance destructive of the rights and values of property owners as well as the entire community.” Refusing to remove a work falling under this broad category of “graffiti” can result in removal by the city without the owner’s consent. In Providence and many other cities around the world, the law’s message is clear: Keep your art off the street.

But street art has never been known to follow the rules. Despite the fact that it is a crime, it is also one of the world’s most popular art forms. The famous unofficial campaign poster for Obama that became a national symbol, the one with the President’s face emblazoned in red, white, and blue above a simple message, hope, began its life as an illegally placed image in Los Angeles, a creation of the prominent street artist Shepherd Fairey, a RISD graduate who designed the concept of his famous “obey” tag while a student in Providence. Current law fails to reflect the popularity and ubiquity of urban art.

Urban art constitutes several different forms, including the fluid categories of graffiti, street art, mural arts and a variety of hybrid forms that combine the three and add other elements. Graffiti is characterized by its attachment to an insular subculture, where artists tag their names to walls and vie for notoriety with spray paint using techniques and symbols understood by other graffiti artists. Sometimes graffiti is artistic and innocuous, but occasionally it can also be tied to gang violence and other urban problems.

On the other hand, street art is generally less insular, containing messages accessible to the general public. Street artists tend to make use of stencils and a variety of media, putting their art on publicly visible spaces for all to see. Many street artists could build careers in more mainstream corners of the art world (and some do), but they often consciously choose to shun both the law and the traditional art world as an artistic statement that reinforces the messages, often subversive and critical, that they want to convey. By its nature street art is ephemeral, and once it has been executed its ownership is vague, as evidenced by the legal controversy that ensued when American Eagle made use without permission of a theme by Aholsniffsglue, a Miami-based street artist. As members of the urban art family, the line between street art and graffiti is blurry. Street artists often engage in their own form of tagging and some graffiti has clear artistic value. The commonalities between them include the fact that they challenge the art establishment and the city laws and include physical city space as a central component of their work.

Urban art is perhaps most renowned for its countercultural themes and its expression of urban life and its tensions. The theme of rebellion runs throughout the graffiti world, which, along with hip-hop, has its roots in 1970s New York. Street art often has clear social messages, usually encompassing critiques of mainstream civic, economic institutions and modern living. A recent example can be seen in work in Gaza by Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous and elusive street artist, where he appealed to a global audience by publicizing his work online. Urban art covers a broad range of themes, from political and social critiques to ironic observations, messages of hope, a celebration of the heritage and history of a community or space or an expression of frustration and anger. But even more importantly, the creation and the location of urban art are integral to its meaning. Putting a piece of art in a public space, where it becomes in a sense common property, separated from the standard institutional world of art and in opposition to common notions of property and the use of space is a unique way of re-imagining city spaces. Whether the art was carried out by the consent of a community or placed on a building by the will of a lone individual potentially changes the meaning of the work.

When Banksy came to New York for a “residency” in October of 2013, he created daily works of street art using a variety of media from canvas to living actors, and his presence and daily activity put the dichotomy between the law and public opinion into stark relief. While the mayor of New York made it clear that his presence was unwelcome and his activity illegal, the property owners who woke up with his work on their wall, many of whom would have called graffiti removal in other circumstances, responded as though they had won the lottery, putting covers on walls to protect the works from damage. In England, pieces of wall were removed and sold in auctions for thousands of dollars.

This commercialization, however, seems to contradict the fact that Banksy himself sees his work as belonging to the people at large and that his work often contains biting critiques of dominant culture and modern institutions. His attitude can be summed up by the name of his agency responsible for verifying his work for collectors, Pest Control, his sarcastic stint during his stay in New York where he set up an unsuccessful stand in Central Park and only later revealed that all the works in the stand were his creations and his refusal to authenticate any works done on the street. Regardless, the public has developed an obsession with street art and street artists, bestowing cult status on artists and paying huge sums for their works. Street art, which came into existence as an alternative to the art establishment, has become mainstream. In doing so it has been effective in challenging and problematizing city governments and laws. Street art is popular, it is powerful, and it is here to stay.

In many cities, projects have arisen that seek to use street art to benefit cities and the communities that comprise them. These programs recognize the potency and draw of street art, and seek to harness the capacity for expression and ownership of space the art provides, a kind of reverse Broken Windows Theory. One prominent example is Philadelphia Mural Arts, a non-profit that connects street artists with communities to create murals around Philadelphia. In an article published by Huffington Post, the program director Jane Golden described how the process of creating a mural made a community she worked with in Philadelphia become more engaged in caring and advocating for their neighborhood. She sees street art as being capable of the opposite effect predicted by broken window theory, capable of bringing positive change to an otherwise meaningless space.

Philadelphia Mural Arts has done a variety of meaningful works, including a project to create “love letter” murals to spread positive messages around the city and a series of “Healing Walls,” a collection of murals created by convicted criminals, prison advocates and crime victims together that depict all the community members affected by crime. Philadelphia Mural Arts also runs a program that teaches art to inmates and juveniles as a form of community service. According to their website, the program emphasizes “re-entry, reclamation of civic spaces, and the use of art to give voice to people who have consistently felt disconnected from society.” This program and the many success stories it has written show the power that street artists and communities can have in collectively transforming spaces through public art.

A similar project was founded in Providence in 2012. The Avenue Concept, created by Yarrow Thorne, a RISD graduate, engages in similar mural projects with youth and community members in underused city spaces and in schools. They create pictures on “revolving walls,” a concept that allows for walls to be changed periodically in order to create a diversity of art over time. The Avenue Concept also focuses on fostering positive graffiti arts through their “Legal Wall” and paint bar, where street artists and graffiti artists can come purchase paint and create art freely on the exterior walls of program’s headquarters. The idea is to create a more positive connection between the graffiti community and the rest of Providence and to channel graffiti’s more destructive side into a positive and vibrant art scene that contributes to the city.

Programs like these exemplify Urban Art’s potency; it can affect how people inhabit and understand their city and can be an empowering force. It can also serve a variety of purposes and convey any number of messages, destructive or constructive, critical or inspirational. Of course, a place will always remain for lone street artists challenging and critiquing society through their illegally placed art, and in many ways, illegal art has a unique contribution that would be lost by any variation. But where cities previously saw the need to condemn, they should instead view street art and the public’s interest in it as something with potential, a way to empower communities and individuals and create spaces of open democracy and equality of expression that can add to a city’s sense of humanity and civic vitality. Maybe fostering rather than persecuting public expression would do our cities more good.