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.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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