City Building – the value of street art as a process for social change

Art and politics have long been interwoven; in fact it’s hard to imagine the art world devoid of political motivation and whether it’s an artist with a message or a struggling community, the route to change has often started with someone picking up a brush or spray can. 

Indeed whole sub-genres of style and new fonts have risen up from political turmoil such as the Pichação hand style in Brazil and the long history of political graffiti in Greece which has moved on from painted slogans to huge metaphorical murals promoting national identity like the “Owl of Athens” by artist WD.

Of course there’s the obvious connections to the work of artists like Banksy whos pieces are as close to social and political commentary as they are to aesthetic art, but to truly understand the value of street art as a tool for social change you need to go way back into its roots and origins.

Street art is a relatively new phenomenon, really coming to prominence around 2005 and born from the much more established graffiti scene. Graffiti was one of the key pillars in the formation of the Hip Hop movement, a movement that was primarily concerned with fighting for equality and respect.  Graffiti art, in its most understood form, started in New York in the 70s and so it’s only natural that this new style would eventually reach maturity some forty years later as the next generation of artists had the chance to play with the format in a much safer and accepting environment than the original graffiti writers faced. Graffiti has become one of the most important art movements of modern times, arguably second only to Pop Art, and has left a footprint in contemporary culture that transcends galleries and takes to the street and therefore has an obligation to continue to challenge convention and stimulate discussion.

Graffiti art began to expand from merely “tagging” areas; neighbourhoods took pride in their community murals and this model of arts based community cohesion can be seen mirrored around the world and yields many additional bonuses to the communities engaged in it. A recent trend of “Street Art Tours” has swept across most major cities both in the UK and beyond, often organised by people deeply involved in the creation or commissioning of the work who are driven by pride and passion for their homes and culture. This helps bring much needed revenue into traditionally economically disadvantaged or even semi derelict areas. After all it is culture that builds cities and a blossoming arts scene helps transform areas and attracts investment from business. Whilst some people resist this gentrification process, to others it seems as natural as any other form of evolution and they embrace the ever changing landscape like an artist approaching a fresh canvas.

Current events like Bristol’s Upfest and Birmingham’s City of Colours have rejuvenated big areas of their city centres and provide a huge spectacle that really works in bringing many sections of the community together but there is a concern that this has become big business and much of the funding and sponsorship is now focused on the big name artists with less investment being put back into the neighbourhoods and their street art crews. Successful engagement of the local artists and equally important, the local youth, instils a sense of investment in the area and guarantees extra longevity for the artwork itself. Youth Justice Teams across the UK have regularly reported positive effects on the levels of reoffending when young people have been engaged in creative work especially when focused in their own communities, fostering that sense of pride and achievement.

So looking forward, what role can Street Arts have in effecting social change? Jonathan Jones once wrote in the Guardian newspaper “the state should pay the young to graffiti our streets” which sounds fantastically anarchistic, of course it’s hard to censor and control but giving our youth a credible and creative voice could help them develop a deeper social conscience beyond the slogans and the hash tags, perhaps holding our leaders accountable in a new and refreshingly honest way. And if in these grey days of austerity and food banks, some much needed colour finds its way onto our walls, bringing warmth and vibrancy to our streets, then surely it’s a win win?

Words and photography provided by Sandy Duff

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