In the City of Friction and Frisson: Street Art and Urbanism

by David Ensminger

10 Apr 2011

All photos by David Ensminger 

As a folklorist, I enjoy poking my camera amid dense and claustrophobic cities in the pursuit of documenting plentiful and discordant street art that often embodies a frenetic, temporary, living museum of the streets. I examine the nooks and crannies—blighted corners in the lean shadows, tumble down leftover apartments, angry alleyways, and empty park acreage—in search of the other city that lives alongside coiffured lawns, manicured hedges, and overflowing oil profits.

Some days, this means witnessing desperation that simmers just below the not-so-Teflon surface, and sometimes this means observing the naked language of the city: people making their own homegrown street media and pursuing art (at times on accident) in the middle of stifling humidity and doldrums days. Locally, my own Houston neighborhood mixes modest bungalows from the ‘30s with streamlined, stretched out condos that make gentrification appear like a vacuous suburban dream of inner city resurrection. The streets are never a blank canvas.

I discover an indigent kind of poetry: mushrooms oozing from a chopped off tree; rain water finding its way to broken tile street corners; murals meditating in front of piles of cookout pit ash and melon rinds in parks just meters away from a freeway; homemade print outs asking for help finding missing dogs stapled to electric poles above puddles with dragonflies zipping by; and a profusion of flyers, stencils, graffiti, stickers, and vernacular art environments. I am not a professional photographer, nor do I pretend to wield any pretensions about a digital camera I barely know how to cradle. Stop, witness, and push a button. That’s my resolve, my habit.

My pictures of street life reveal multiple sides below the radar of ozone city life. One side reveals homegrown businesses with some grit trying to survive the new economy by hammering out their promotion with folk art tendencies by making their own signage, while another unveils officially sponsored graffiti and murals thriving in communities often unnoticed but blasting their messages of survival, unity and hope, anyway.

Flickering like crushed coal bits is another side as well: the ‘illegitimate’ musings of taggers and graffiteros.  As one woman blowing leaves in her front yard told me, “Somebody ought to catch these kids and smack them on the side of their damn heads.” Their work tends to reveal a language of boredom, of eruptive ennui. The work is cryptic, hasty, frenetic, often cynical, sometimes deft and calculated, though also equally unhampered by “high culture” traits. 

Additionally, street art flyers, screen prints, cut-outs, and miniature paintings compete for the same space and viewers, forming a conceptual coil that weds the unlawful urges of graffiti with the lingering saboteur art credos of rebel art with finesse. All of it sprouts like weeds breaking through roads and sidewalks, reminding people that art survives in one form or another. As gentrification bulldozes forward, inhabitants push back, like Sisyphus kids of the urban black hole.

This darker side presents a kind of youthful anguish and alienation, a fever that has escaped tract homes, apartment complexes, low wage jobs, and brick schools. Granted, some graffiti is second-rate, cartoonish, and looks like a facsimile of mythologized hip-hop images; meanwhile, punk flyers often shout out in cliché cut-and-paste doomsday jitters or bitterly appeal for social justice.

Take note, though, for some street art is skillful, arduous, eye-boggling, and even a bit elitist. All the illegal art, if taken as a combined unstable code and signature, are like short-lived tattoos on the municipal skins of cities.

Academics muse about street art’s aesthetic of appropriation, re-purposing, and culture jamming. Sometimes they neglect performance, for such art represents the way of the wolves, of nighttime prowlers – hustlers, thieves, suburban skaters, hip-hop crews, angst-armed artists – and you and me, if we had the audacity, hunger, and spirit of poetic criminology.

Images often speak for themselves. Work such as “Gentrify Me” reveals the tensions inherent in economic revitalization efforts, forming an irony-laden poetry of self-defense. The hazy Afro-American image of a black man’s face juxtaposed against old mildewed soft fabric and dull wood embodies a similar kind of restlessness, albeit more geared towards an inner city black urban dynamic. Located not far from Freedman’s Town, a historic black neighborhood, the piece, which looks dissolved or disappearing, may address how black men endure “erasure” from the city’s cultural history.

In both cases, as the city attempted to “clean up”, youth pushed back with insurgent art that “hides in the light”, to borrow a phrase from Dick Hebdige. Note the sticker that reads “Communicate” as a car whirs by. The art is an important part of an urban folk art/vernacular tradition. It embodies Do-It-Yourself aesthetics and reveals multiple issues, including youth attempting to claim a sense of authorship, agency, autonomy, and appropriation.

These are the sentiments of historian Joe Austin, who examines how ‘youth’ have been historically left without legitimate spaces in which to live autonomously outside of adult surveillance. Young people ‘Take Place’ by appropriating nomadic, temporary, abandoned, illegal, or otherwise unwatched spaces within the landscape (“Angels of History, Demons of Culture”, Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, 1998).

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