From dissidents to decoration: how street art sold out and gentrified our cities

Some street art in Mumbai. Image: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty.

Street art – as well as its artistic forebear, graffiti – are often thought of as radical, rebellious aesthetic practices. Both the artists and their works are portrayed as the very definition of “edgy”; dangerous and dissident, but also creative and avant-garde.

Yet within the last five years or so, street art (and I use this term here in distinction to graffiti) has been commandeered by the corporate interests of the “creative city”.

The creative city doctrine is one in which public space is privatised and monetised – used as a simple means to an end. As imagined by superstar urban theorists such as Richard Florida, it is the role of city authorities to draw the emerging creative class to their sites. They must mark themselves out visually and recreationally, to entice the key demographic of well-educated professionals and “bohemians” (the coders, the designers, the “knowledge-based” professionals) who form the basis for a post-industrial economy.

So edge. Much create. Image: fred.bigio/Flickr, CC BY.

From this perspective, the arts exist merely as a cog in the regenerative wheel, aimed at attracting and retaining these individuals so as to build wealth and develop cities. The movements and developments of contemporary art practice are here subordinated to the desires and objectives of urban planning policy: the development of the private sector takes priority over the development of the aesthetic or the social.

Rather than simply seeping into the mainstream art market (as the case with nearly all once-radical art), street art has been re-purposed to reel the creative class into particular urban spaces. Street art and street artists are today employed – quite literally  to accelerate the process of gentrification and mainline a sense of “authenticity” into a site.


Edgy enough

This transformation is due, in part, to the steady rise of the street art festival. From Miami to Manilla, these festivals have given institutions a way to establish the ultimate delivery system for creative city policies. They make and market “place”, turning physical space into a branded commodity. The “edgy authenticity” of street art makes it the ideal fit for this task: it is just perfectly, marvellously edgy enough.

Much of the street art pumped out through the festival apparatus provides an aesthetic of transgression, while remaining perfectly numb to the social realities of its setting, treating public space like a blank canvas, rather than a site already loaded with cultural, historical and personal significance.

It appears political while in fact being perfectly non-partisan. It performs a charade of rebellion and insurgence, while being officially sanctioned by commission and invitation. It constructs the perfect “cool” conditions for the “bohemian” hubs that the creative city requires. Yet it has severed itself from its radical roots, not simply by selling itself, but (even worse) by selling a false notion of place.

The new colonialism

Of course, I can gather that this may all sound a tad hyperbolic. After all, how offended can you really be by some intentionally inoffensive street art? Yet I argue that these festivals are not just a distribution point for innocuous, bland art: in fact, they are actively creating inequality within modern cities.

Tack-tastic street art at Wynwood Walls. Image: VISIT FLORIDA/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Take, as a prime example, the Wynwood Walls project in Miami – probably the most famous and widely-imitated of the thousands of street art festivals that exist today. Established in 2009 by the property tycoon Tony Goldman, Wynwood Walls is widely held to have turned a run-down neighbourhood into a location now famed as much for its nightlife as its art: an area where factories have been converted into galleries, and warehouses into clubs and bars.

But this success has come at the cost of the lives and homes of the local Puerto Rican community. What Goldman famously called “gentlefication” is, of course, nothing of the sort. The art of Wynwood is not only superficial – it is a practice of colonisation. Artists arrive (responding to the call of capital), ignorant of local circumstances (and too apathetic to enquire), and create a vibrant veneer which removes any trace of the existing communities.

Telling the ugly truth

Yet amid this fresh, brightly-coloured hell of kitsch critters and “erotic” female figures, all is not lost. I believe we can still find our way to a critical street art, which calls to attention the inequalities, counter-cultures and diversity embodied by the contemporary city.

Mural by Spanish artist Escif. Image: duncan/Flickr, CC BY-ND.

Talented contemporary artists such as E. B. Itso, Eltono and Escif are leading the way. Along with names such as Akay, Brad Downey and Timo Radya, they are finding creative ways to question and critique our environments, delve into the nature of our surroundings and reorder our streets and cities.


The festivals, the institutions supporting street art can still have role here – but only through supporting work which might not be liked: not everything needs to be pretty, and not everyone has to agree. There is beauty in witnessing different ways of being, in questioning your own morals and mores and in being exposed to people and practices which are radically different to oneself. Those who have the power to affect the appearance of our urban environments must embrace this beauty. It’s no easy task – but better an ugly truth than a beautiful lie. The Conversation

Rafael Schacter is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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