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

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).

The World Kicked Back

Most folklorists are driven to document “wild style”, a form associated with the syncretic aerosol art of the ’80s, replete with highly stylized “electric boogie” lettering, splashy, vibrant colors, and even Disney, comic book, or album art images. Others are drawn to gangland tags: territorial markings, off-the-cuff and hurried, in which utility (telling viewers “this is my turf”) is more important than aesthetic.

I study street art that utilizes prefabricated materials. For instance, a sticker reading “End Racism” might be posted on a bus stop sign, replete with basic bus information and graphics as a stagnant backdrop, which might suggest that bus routes enforce the borders of a racially divided city; soft plastic stickers of a dinosaur might be placed on yellow street signs and standard gray metal light poles, almost too small to be noticed. The playfulness seems at cross-purposes with the dangerous high voltage containers, or is it?

Both profound and profoundly distressing, street art nourishes and taints city space, witnesses and wounds.

Down the street from my office at the University of Oregon a few years ago, the panels of a house were transformed into a small tableaux featuring a bright orange soft square, beige backdrop, some smudges of gray, and stencils of a ’70s-looking skinhead with the tag “The World Kicked Back”; a blurry stencil of the classical composer Bach with the pun tag “I’ll Be Bach”; and a star (that may be associated with Converse shoes) with the slogan “Alder Street Allstars”. This represented just one single panel among many.

The art signifies a purpose beyond mere tagging. Folklorists explore how these community members personalized or reclaimed space in a relatively nondescript neighborhood that lacks vernacular touches. As such, they contest, question, and fissure domestic, industrial, and municipal sites/spaces.

To be honest, neighbors often do not welcome such art, even when the art embodies a clever sense of play, inter-textuality, political deconstruction, and pop sensibility. Yet, graffiti has been studied by all ranges of academic disciplines, including linguists attempting to reconstruct the everyday language of the city of Athens, which can be read in graffiti on temples and other sites. Folklorists studied the markings left on park benches during the ’20s to grasp the era’s issues. To discuss graffiti is to enter into a discourse involving the politics of space, and the language and symbol systems of the ‘folk’, not just to catalog, appreciate, or debate the style or merit of aerosol art.

An analogy may be made to the Internet, actually. According to Prof. Henry Jenkins, the Internet is the new public commons (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NY Univ. Press, 2006). Individuals jungle agency and expression online while increasingly being placed under pressure by the forces of business and government regulation (also construed as surveillance). Still, democracy feels much more participatory on-line. These net citizens express hybrid ideologies that are not confined to old, static, and enclosed ideologies. They cross borders, and their identity is likely more rooted in lifestyles rather than precinct politics.

Some see the public commons as decentralized and unevenly dispersed, fulfilling a promise of reciprocity (the metaphor of a two-way street). The net is allegorized as a libertarian electronic frontier. Others feel that it is an information superhighway — federalized, controlled, and deeply mediated, catalyzing a generation of renegades, hackers, culture jammers, and open source grassroots activists. In this light, Wiki Spaces has been deployed as a truth drone, blasting away the layers of misinformation and self-serving diplomacy, legalese, and real politick.

Graffiti, stickering, and stencils act much in the same way, though immersed in the physical world. Youth contest the space of cities (the public commons), jamming official (say, by sticking, stenciling, or putting graffiti over municipal utility boxes, light poles, highway overpasses and signage), commercial (business buildings, parking garages, sites under construction etc), or domestic sites, such as homes.

The entire city can often become a “site of contestation” documenting the struggles between hegemony and freedom seekers. Such spaces may reveal a “ludic recombination”, since the spaces becomes inverted, metamorphosed, and given a new identity by the art. Zealously stylish artists often exhibit a sense of communitas, too: they bond via a subculture-shared knowledge about paints, style, and urban topography that reveals alternative narratives of a city.

John Keat’s poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, offers the lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” For me, the truth of street art lives within its unsanctioned freedom of expression. Such short-lived empowering gestures might invoke crude, unstable, and impure forms, but the beauty of these forms, or their merits, lies not within the final product as much as the process – the reclaiming, poaching, and cultural jamming, which reveal the dynamism of democracy.

Both profound and profoundly distressing, street art nourishes and taints city space, witnesses and wounds.