street art: part one

Cross-posted at

To more sufficiently deliver my harangue on commissioned street art, I harvested a few barrels of input and fermented some complex strains of perspective.

Do note that when I refer to street art I’m including graffiti art, graffiti vandalism, and public art.

  1. A community’s street art should be a reflection of the community.

As illustrated by Dr. James Q. Wilson and Dr. George Kelling’s broken window theory, thoughtless graffiti vandalism and other obvious signs of disrepair have measurable degenerative effects on a neighborhood. Criminologists have found that this type of neglect-oriented vandalism has a snowball effect , increasing the likelihood of more vandalism nearby. Researchers have found that there is a positive correlation between vandalism, street violence, and the general societal decline. Consequently, beautification can have regenerative effects on an area. But when commissioned artists are hired to implant the presence of artwork into a community, the results can often be quite adverse. For instance, residents may be forced to endure steeply rising living costs in exchange for brand name graphic infusions. In Banksy’s book “Wall and Piece,” an individual’s letter to Banksy is presented in a misguided attempt to disprove the theory that graffiti depreciates the value of housing in its vicinity:

“My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore. Your graffities are undoubtably part of what makes these wankers think our area is cool.You’re obviously not from round here and after you’ve driven up the house prices you’ll probably just move on. Do us all a favour and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton.”

A nonprofit arts group in Atlanta called Living Walls met similar resistance when they hired artists to infuse the city with color. Though they went through the required rigamarole to attain permission to install the artwork, they missed a key step in accomplishing their goal to “uplift neighborhoods, bring residents together, even invigorate local economies,” which was including said residents of the neighborhood. After the art was put up, the confused individuals complained that they had not been included in any discussion about the commissioned public art and they didn’t know how it related to their community. Some residents in the Atlanta neighborhood went so far as to cover the commissioned art entirely in paint. The commissioned artwork was formally removed after the residents agreed they did not want it there.

Community art should reflect the community. When a community lacks the ability to collaborate and express themselves (by means of crime, poverty, social neglect, etc) its figurative decay is reflected by its literal decay. Graffiti vandalism and other forms of vandalism become pervasive and a degenerative cycle is set into play between the social acceptance of crime and the perpetration crime. However, the infiltration of such a deteriorating neighborhood by spray paint-wielding strangers undermines the fundamental purpose of community art. Art is a way for a community to express itself. Yet, many cities today don’t recognize how important street art can be as an outlet for individual expression and a source of collective cohesion.

Cultivating an environment conducive to thoughtful artistic expression allows communities to thrive and work together. According to Joshua Guetzkow of Princeton University, the presence of such grassroots artistic collectivism in a community, “builds social capital by getting people involved,… connecting organizations… [and] giving participants experience in organizing and working with local government and nonprofits… [It] leads to positive community norms such as diversity, tolerance, and free expression. “  On an individual level, it, “increases [one’s] sense of individual efficacy and self esteem, builds individual ties and promotes volunteering, which improves health,” and, “enhances [one’s] ability to work with others and communicate ideas.” Engaging those that might not otherwise be engaged, such as disadvantaged members of a society, can foster trust and collective efficacy. Furthermore, there are countless economic benefits that you can read more about in Guetzkow’s paper. These improvements will never materialize  if we continue to ignore the fact that the creative, collaborative process of public art is as important as the outcome.

Instead of wasting money on brand name art implants, funnel those funds back into the community from which they came. If your organization wants to spend money on professionally splatter painting an impoverished neighborhood, maybe you should consider getting involved in it instead. Volunteer to pick up trash. Start a grassroots organization that facilitates cheap or cost-free artistic expression. Buy something from a locally owned business. Spread awareness. Start a community garden or simply guerilla garden.

Can you think of more ideas?

Categories: Atlanta, Infrastructure

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