Street graffiti – yes, we know, you’ve been hearing about this a lot for the last few years. Well, bear with us, as we try to connect the dots a bit on this global phenomenon.
Depending on where you live, street graffiti may be a mundane annoyance or a vibrant example of public expression. Across the world, its history is an enduring one. As long as public spaces have existed, graffiti, in some form or another, has seemingly occupied those spaces. Over the last few years, Western excitement about the “emergence” of graffiti in the Arab world and greater Middle East has, however, failed to grapple with this long historical arc – as if graffiti and the creativity it implies could never have existed in a part of the world many now associate with authoritarianism and censorship.
But, in most countries, graffiti is an illicit act – from the United States to Europe, few governments actively support street graffiti, unless, of course, they have commissioned the art themselves. When it comes to street art, then, the “nature” of government should not really matter – the phenomenon will inevitably exist regardless of the political environment, as it did in Egypt before the January 2011 revolution and as it does now in Iran. The nature of the ruling regime does, however, have real effects on the visibility, ubiquity, and political power of street graffiti. The more permissive the government’s approach, the more willing people are to take the risk of expressing themselves in ways that may potentially expose them to arrest or fines.
The political and social power of graffiti is determined as much by quantity as quality. The more graffiti there is and the more artists work together, whether by collaboratively creating pieces or independently appropriating, revising, or reinterpreting each others work, the more effect graffiti potentially has, as a whole, on the social fabric and politics of a city, town, or village. Where these areas become known for graffiti, they also attract artists from outside the local community, including from other parts of the country, the region, and the world.
This is part of the “global nature” of graffiti. It is a phenomenon not only found in many different areas; it is also a force that brings people from various places together in one centralized location, with potentially potent consequences for local communities as well as for artists and their art.
We recently came across a few interesting projects that reflects these disparate elements of graffiti art. Las Calles Hablan (“The Streets Speak”) is a documentary that focuses on the medium’s development in Barcelona, while also highlighting the international aspects of the city’s street art movement. Archiving the rise of public art in Barcelona over the last few decades, the film takes the viewer around the streets of this Spanish metropolis and features various artists and other members of the movement. The documentary (which can be viewed below) exhibits the interplay between politics and art, as well as Barcelona’s attraction to local and international graffiti artists. As government crackdowns against public art have increased in recent years (mostly through exorbitant fines), artists have slowly left the risk-laden world of street graffiti and exhibited their art in private galleries. In this way, the shift caused by the state’s negative response to this urban art form has transformed graffiti from an integral part of Barcelona’s social fabric into a commodified good for sale to the highest bidder. Still, as the documentary reflects, some artists remain committed to their urban roots, continuing to display their art in public spaces, regardless of the risk. The film is part of a broader project, called Mapping Barcelona Public Art, covering urban art and street graffiti in various places around the world.
Then, there is the Tunisian village of Erriadh, which has become the site of an international mural project bringing together 150 artists from thirty countries. Mashable did a piece on the initiative, with beautiful images of the art work. Unlike the street art found in Las Calles Hablan, the mural project is ostensibly supported by the local government, giving artists from around the globe the freedom to openly exercise their creative talents collectively without the threat of reprisal. With the lovely backdrop provided by the village, the art takes on a strongly collective form with a power it could not possibly enjoy within the sterile confines of a gallery or museum.
For more on street graffiti (including its regional, local, and international aspects, political power, and commodification) in various parts of the world, check out some of these interesting resources:
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Documentary)
Banksy Street Art (Tumblr)
Suzee in the City: Art in the Streets of Cairo (WordPress Site)
el Seed: the Art of Calligraffiti:
Global Street Art: Palestine – Art in the Streets:
Global Street Art: Libya – Art in the Streets:
Global Street Art: Egypt – Art in the Streets:
Global Street Art: Lebanon – Art in the Streets:
Global Street Art: Mexico City – Art in the Streets:
Global Street Art: Valparaiso, Chile – Art in the Streets: