On the surface level, graffiti or street art is work on a canvas that may inspire feelings of amusement and intrigue, but there is a deeper connection between urban art and cultural heritage. Conventionally, the word graffiti was synonymous with vandalism as moral entrepreneurs sought to extinguish this subculture. However, over time, the works of Keith Haring in the 1980s to present-day influences like Banksy, allowed for positive critical attention. The separation of graffiti with vandalism altered overall perception of graffiti to be recognized as something more than a crime- something with far more value, art that could reach beyond the gallery. Despite the legal issues that surround graffiti, it's ability to enhance public spaces, the ability to participate in political and socio-economic issues, complemented by the raw nature of this art form, causes street art to be a direct connection to heritage.
The anonymity of graffiti is perhaps the most significant contribution to cultural heritage. Street art is the hidden voice of the public through an often succinct satirical phrase or image. Anonymity allows a piece of work to become highly relatable and form across barriers of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The lack of information behind a graffiti artist's identity limit classification which facilitates an accepting subculture. Graffiti's ability to transcend barriers grew with the ease of access via social media. Michael Hardt, a professor at Duke University in literature and Antonio Negri, an independent researcher who studied graffiti state, “What we need to understand, then, is a collective community can emerge from the communication, intelligence, and cooperation of such varied multiplicity” (Gerbaudo 91). Unlike other subcultures, graffiti supersedes the lines of social classification. It is not exclusive to a specific ethnic or socioeconomic group. Both expression and activism occur on all levels and the deviance behind graffiti art forms a unique community. Although it began among teenagers in low-income areas, the exposure on those passing by as well as social media caused this art to expand to include artists from all walks of life.
Graffiti is for the public and it is from the public. It is the raw reflection of society's commentary on the present time. This underground form of art also paints work that is selective for the community and is refreshing from outside marketing companies that come as a form of advertisement. Marc Schiller, co-founder of a foundational street art blog, Wooster Collective, adds
I think spontaneity is an incredibly powerful and humanizing thing. You can buy your way into being in somebody's consciousness through them experiencing it outdoors, you can buy a billboard, you can buy ad space, you can do all that, but the artist doesn't really have that ability, but at the same time wants to have the power that advertisers have and wants to have the ability to make an impact” (Bates).
Graffiti made just for the local community is also a denial of outside influences. The overall impact adds a level of participation in the neighborhood.
Participation adds to the idea of authenticity. Graffiti art has the ability to change the possibility of what a public space can be. The freedom to raw expression builds an attitude of openness, the opportunity to create something unique to the area. Debatably the most famous graffiti artist, Banksy, speaks about this and incites, “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn't illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall - it's wet” (Gough 3). Although this is the most extreme outlook on graffiti, it shows how participation can truly create an identity to a public space. Furthermore, there is a unique trait of graffiti where one artist will tag over another tag already present. This creates an ever-changing identity that always allows a transformation towards present values. In Philadelphia, there was a city-wide initiative to use graffiti as a way to revitalize a city and to create a theme of love.
The Mural Arts Program (MAP) project, “Love Letter”, managed by Steve Powers, is a series of 50 murals that goes from 45th street to 63rd street in West Philadelphia. It was a city-wide initiative that created a soul in the Market-Frankford line from designing the line with a loose tale of a graffiti writer's effort to win over a girl. It was similar to how graffiti began in modern day times as Cornbread, a Philadelphian born native tagged the streets in hopes of catching the attention of a girl he liked. There were phrases such as “Your everafter is all I'm after” and “Meet me on Fifty-Second, if only for fifty seconds” (Bates 32). The purpose of this was to paint highly visible rooftops in an effort to restore some vibrancy that has faded in a period of urban decline. However, it is most important to access how visual accessibility plays a role in cultural heritage. Aside from the theme of love being included in the urban identity, all the murals are strategically placed to only be seen from elevated train lines and certain pedestrian areas. The reason for this to be noted is that these images depict an event that speaks to the people that occupy that area and it excludes any outsiders. Graffiti is a way for a community to become individualized and the exclusion of outside influences allows for a genuine culture to grow. The Love Letter projects connections to street art demonstrate that it can be an inclusive, respectful method to address an audience and to build a stronger community.
Proliferating walls is an ever-present reminder about the culture that is within a city. Graffiti artists whose purpose is to beautify an area create energy to that area which reconnects people in neglected areas. The everchanging capability of graffiti creates a space that always resonates with the identity of a community. One mural in Philadelphia is of a tattooed arm, which points to a tattoo parlor. The tattoos resemble Allen Iverson's (Bates 52). Iverson was a well-known basketball player who inspired the local youth and created a name in Philadelphia. Those outside the basketball community would not notice the reference, but the integration of an icon contributes to the cultural heritage brought on by the mural. Murals like these were added by the Love Letter project which was an initiative to show how graffiti can be inclusive and respectful to the public.
Graffiti is often criticized as part of the broken windows theory, however, it could be interpreted as the complete opposite. With programs such as MAP, intended to make a neighborhood more aesthetic, a political scholar Golden discusses how it is almost the opposite of the ‘broken window' theory as it actually shows opportunity and possibility. Rather than the window being broken, it is actually open in a way that people had not anticipated. The broken windows theory “simply shifts the blame for crime away from obvious factors like poverty and desperation caused by a lack of employment and social support services and onto the visual presence of a graffiti writer's tag in an area” (Dickinson 37). Initiatives such as MAP shepherds a creative instinct among artistic people into creating work that gives back to the community. Beyond the gallery, graffiti art is an outreach to engage the neighborhood in attempting to figure out what work should go where that would represent the people. The overall effect reaches deeper than just having a new picture up. Aside from being an embodiment of the population, this subculture acts as an escape for people with issues that are commonly seen in low-income urban areas.
Graffiti is often done in response to the environment in which the artist occupies. This is seen in response to the poor socioeconomic conditions of the 1970s in New York City. Teenagers during this time used graffiti as a way to avoid the rampant drug and gang scene. However, graffiti is a route that is taken to avoid “inevitable outcomes”. An interviewee from New York went on to state:
I feel like that kind of a space – the space where you believe in an infinity of possibility - is the place within ourselves from which we are able to make a positive change… even though we've seen the thousandth brutal ending, you're able to still say, ‘No, I don't accept this as an inevitable outcome. I'm gonna (sic) re-imagine and regroup and try to make a new . . . path for these situations (Seda-Reeder 24).
Graffiti not only changes the environment for beautification, it changes the behaviors of an entire area as it provides an outlet for those seeking to escape their inevitable outcomes and participate in a unique subculture.
Graffiti's role as a counterculture and as a form of resistance also adds to its capability of enforcing the communities cultural heritage. Street art embodies the general principles and values a community will have. Graffiti is “mediated by the micro-morphology of the city and embodies the urban habitus and field of symbolic capital” (Dovey 24). By putting up work locally, an artist can understand the struggles that outsiders would not fully comprehend. This rogue form of expressionism to participate politically on a local level will also reveal the disadvantages an area may have.
Urban art is a counter-cultural movement that has matured into an art form. One major aspect of this is that graffiti revolves around spheres of heritage and conservation. The individualistic desire to leaving something behind adds to the identity of a public space. Graffiti is a representation of the culture that the people create. The aspects of painting over, graffiti being in present time, and the beautification of an area all contribute with graffiti being directly related to cultural heritage.
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