Making blank walls sing: the case for graffiti and murals
By Anke Hurt
On a sunny day there is a bright reflection coming from the blank wall across the street from my Kitsilano home. The expanse of matte-grey cinder bricks feels like wasted space.
The blankness of the wall is especially notable, given that other parts of my community have become striking canvases for public art. Much of the new colour comes courtesy of the Vancouver Mural Festival, which matches street and aerosol artists with privately owned buildings (and their businesses). In addition, the Festival celebrates public art with free tours and other events. This year’s Mural Fest (August 8-11) also includes a ticketed concert.
While the Mural Festival may have become the most prominent such event, there’s also a lot of other public art driven by businesses or business improvement associations trying to enliven their shopping areas. The City’s Integrated Graffiti Management Program has supported this sort of community-based art for a number of years now (although it needs to be noted: the City supports sanctioned art while requiring unsanctioned graffiti to be removed – so questions of ‘what is legitimate art?’ and ‘who gets to decide?’ serve as embedded tensions here, as in other cities).
My first exposure to mural art was as a child in Vancouver Island driving through Chemainus. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but over 30 years later I can still remember the bouquets of colour springing from the walls of this little town on Vancouver Island. Chemainus bills itself as “the city of murals.” Following the recession in the early 1980s, they adopted a progressive approach to placemaking – and looked to street art as a way to attract tourism and instill civic pride.
Another notable experience came on a trip to Berlin. It was 1997 and the city was undergoing massive, post-reunification renewal. It was a period of rapid growth, and there was an exuberance and tension in the city that was searching for different types of expression. The Kreutzberg neighbourhood where I was staying was one of a number that was slated for “revitalization” – and became a place for both legal and unauthorized wall art. Street artists proceeded to paint every possible surface with images and messages both edgy and dramatic.
Today, Berlin is one of the global hotbeds of street art (check out some of the fine examples documented on the Street Art Berlin website). While graffiti in the city is technically illegal there are several spaces where artists can pursue their craft in a sanctioned fashion – purchasing permits from local businesses to paint on a particular piece of wall. Creating an official process like this may take some of the clandestine edge off the art, but it doesn’t seem to detract from what is in reality a very dynamic scene. Of course, there are murals too – and the city is home to a number of examples of art commissioned pieces.
Another city with a strong public art scene is New York. A lot of New York’s iconic graffiti scene developed organically, and came to define the urban landscape in the 1980s. Nowadays, the stealthy work of small crews of artists has also been supplemented by groups actively and overtly promoting public art.
One such initiative is the L.I.S.A. Project (the acronym stands for: Little Italy Street Art) started in 2012 by Wayne Rada, and now a registered non-profit. Recognizing the potential community development angle inherent in street art, Rada and his group started promoting murals as a way to revitalize the Little Italy neighbourhood. The project proved so successful that it spread to other neighbourhoods. Today, the group produces and promotes a number of art pieces each year throughout the city in SoHo, Lower East Side, East Village, Chinatown and Chelsea. Meanwhile, back in Little Italy, their on-going work has helped to create Manhattan’s “first and only mural district”.
Other cities and places, like Boston, Toronto, Venice Beach, and smaller communities like Lynn, Massachusetts, have experimented with other types of sanctioned space. Graffiti alley in Toronto is a marvelous corridor of street art. Signs hung on the wall say something magic: artists welcome. No permit is required.
When cities opt to legitimate graffiti or street art (which is a laudable goal!), a clear and accessible process is important. Artists need to know what to expect, what the approvals process is, whether funding is available, and how long their work will be shown. There ought to be a fairly broad latitude for political or personal artistic expression, but where there are boundaries it should be reasonably clear as to what is acceptable – and civic officials should expect this to be tested.
But does all street art need to be sanctioned? The work of notables like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Roadsworth – to name just a few – are now the subject of movies, gallery exhibitions and even theft. How many of their pieces would have been given a stamp of approval in the municipal office? Here, ‘graffiti as folk art’ seems compromised by the idea of a permit process.
To make matters more interesting, the legal definitions of graffiti are somewhat at odds with the sorts of distinctions that many people will draw between “good” street art and tagging. For example, in Vancouver, the Graffiti Bylaw defines graffiti as “one or more letters, symbols or marks, howsoever made, on any structure or thing but does not include … a letter, symbol or mark for which the owner or tenant of the real property on which the letter, symbol or mark appears has given prior, written authorization.” And that basically means everything is graffiti – and subject to a removal order – unless you get permission.
In my view, good street art – whether a commissioned mural, sanctioned piece, or even something edgier and clandestine – has the potential to enliven blank walls and other forms of urban canvas. That’s not a blank cheque on aerosol art, but it is intended to speak to the possibilities inherent in the art form.
Don’t believe me? Go check out the great work of the upcoming mural fest, or take a tour of some of the previous years work.
And hey, while we’re at it, do you have a blank wall?
Anke Hurt is a recent graduate of the Langara Community Planning Program, a resident of Vancouver, and a big fan of the city’s burgeoning street art scene.
The Vancouver Mural Fest runs now through August 11, 2018. Find out all the details at vanmuralfest.ca.
Cover photo of Jeff Henriquez’s Brooklyn mural by Jada Stevens. And hey… we know who took the photos that we used for this article, but some of the artists remain unknown. If you have any details on the folks responsible for the works we’ve featured here, please drop us a note so we can attribute the pieces appropriately.