Why should we care about street art?

This article was created for The Travel Project by Ginny Copestake

There’s a saying in London, the city I live in. It goes that if you want to uncover things you’ve never seen before, you should look up, for there you’ll discover the many layers of history that make this city so unique.

And yet writing this on a cold grizzly day in November, looking up doesn’t much inspire me (rain, grey skies, grey buildings, meh). Instead, what does inspire me is a piece of street art I can currently spy from the corner of the coffee shop I’m sitting in, in Brixton, South London. The work is a mural of David Bowie, depicting him in his Ziggy Stardust days, and surrounding the work are messages from devoted fans, plus still, even now, the odd floral tribute or two.

Jimmy C mural of David Bowie in brixton, London

Brixton was the place that Bowie was born and grew up in the 1950’s, and following his death in January of this year, this piece of street art by Australian artist Jimmy C became an impromptu place of worship for devoted Bowie fans from all across London and beyond. And still today, nearly a year later, people gather round the mural to take photos and chat all things Bowie.

Which got me to thinking about the power of street art. Of course these people are flocking to this little corner of Brixton to pay their respects to Bowie, but without this piece of work – this artistic, physical evidence of Bowie’s relevance to Brixton – would they still come? The day after Bowie died hundreds, possibly even thousands of devastated fans gathered round this mural to light candles, sing songs and generally remember the legend who was. These people came from all walks of life – doctors, DJ’s, students, bankers, the unemployed, the homeless – and yet here they were as one, sharing in a moment, bought together by the death of an icon, each one taking a little bit of solace from this piece of art.

To me, this is pretty astonishing. The fact that a piece of art – street art – can bring together, even for a moment, a society that every day feels more and more disjointed, and make people really stop, think and feel. For unlike drawings, paintings and sculptures that you find in museums and galleries, street art is there to be consumed by the masses. It is unconfined by walls and doesn’t come with a price tag, and most of all it really makes you to look. Street art is in essence a permanent exhibition on the streets that forces you to see the truth, understanding the state of society at the exact time a piece of work was created.

street art by Levalet in Paris
Reload, by Levalet

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Berlin, hailed “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world” by art critic Emilie Trice. Here, every unimaginable little nook and cranny holds a key to understanding the social development of the city. There are the yellow fists of CBS Crew member Kripoe, representing rebellion and anarchy, the pink monster by BLU that is said to reference the way in which the fascist Nazi system scares people into working together, and, more recently, Banksy’s iconic Flower Thrower, an image that is reminiscent of the 1960s street riots, yet also (through the use of throwing flowers) depicts hope for a peaceful resolution to conflict.

street art by Blu in Berlin
Image courtesy of Ben Giesbrecht

But how did street art and graffiti as an expressionist form come about in Berlin? For this, we look to French born Thierry Noir, arguably the founder of this revolution. Moving to Berlin in January of 1982, 7 years before the fall of the wall, Noir decided to do an act of rebellion no one had ever done before; he decided to paint the wall. Why? Well as he says in his own words, to transform it, to make it ridiculous, and ultimately to help destroy it, and in so doing bring down the physical and political barrier between East and West. Noir’s was an act of political rebellion against the Soviet Union, and an act he repeated time and time again, so much so that when the wall fell in 1989, his paintings became synonymous with freedom. From then on graffiti artists flooded East Germany, making the likes of previously military occupied Mitte, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg an urban playground, with each artist creating works that depicted the overwhelming feeling of the time – what it meant to be free.

These acts of rebellion; of going against the establishment and taking your critique of current social issues to the masses, is the common thread of street art evolution across the globe, and that remains true to today. Look at Greece as an example, where anti-austerity murals have popped up continuously over the last five years as the country’s economy continued to collapse and unemployment soared to 26%, provoking criticism of the international response to the country’s spiralling crisis. Street artist N_Grams ‘N€IN’ mural, daubed on a wall in Athens and depicting the EU flag, is perhaps the most poignant and recognisable of these, but similar works can be seen throughout the city, one (by former photographer Cacao) significantly declaring ‘Then they used tanks. Now they use banks’.

anti austerity street art in athens
N€IN, by N_Grams
“Partly it was because of this big wave of anger that started in 2008 and just grew and grew. But also, as the crisis got worse, there were more and more closed shops and empty buildings. There were a lot of walls to paint.” - Cacao

But whilst street art is commonly used to voice anger or frustration at the state of the world, it is just as commonly used to evoke hope for positive change. In Detroit, a city that was once at the heart of the booming auto industry but in recent years has suffered with a declining population, crime, low living standards and unemployment, street art is being used to revitalize the city. Artists are being commissioned to create murals in new restaurants all across the city, whilst creative groups like the Detroit Creative Corridor and the Beautification of Detroit Project, are using their talents to cover up old, ugly graffiti, and breathe life to buildings that have been left vacant for years.

And the same can be said for Christchurch, New Zealand – a city that in 2011 saw an earthquake destroy nearly three quarters of the city centre buildings. The entire area was deemed unsafe for public presence and the army was sent in to prevent anyone from entering, but as if the way, street artists saw these fallen buildings as an opportunity. And whilst their art could have been representative of the loss of their city, instead they took a different tact, creating images that were bright, colourful, poignant and beautiful, in stark contrast to the rubble they were set against. Soon artists from outside of Christchurch were coming to add their contributions, and soon after that, the locals who had lost everything started to take notice. For what they began to see wasn’t destruction, but instead hope. They saw these positive works of art as representations of themselves and their city, giving a sign that all was not lost, and that one day the city would be theirs again.

Street art in Christchurch, New Zealand
Street art in Christchurch, New Zealand

So just as that Ziggy Stardust mural gives people a reason and a place to remember Bowie, in one little corner of South London, the same thing is happening all across the world. Street art is nothing new, and perhaps it’s not something you’ve ever really given much thought to before, but what it represents, what it stands for, is something far more significant than perhaps you ever imagined. Graffiti in its most primal form can be traced back to the days when cave men daubed drawings on the side of their caves, and as our society continues to evolve and change, it will be the drawings on the street and the hidden identities of their creators who are telling the real story.

We’ve partnered with Instagrammer @bennnnnnnngie as part of The Travel Project, tasking him with capturing some of Berlin’s best known street art to understand what relevance this has to the city as we know it today. Travelling on Contiki’s Berlin, Prague & Vienna trip, discover his findings over on his Instagram channel here.

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