Transforming Public Space: Exploring Street Art in Four Cities

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look. To affect the quality of the day – that is the highest of arts” (Henry David Thoreau)

After participating in this challenge, I realize how fascinated I am with graffiti and street art. I find that whenever I travel and visit new cities, I am always drawn to the messages hidden on the sides of buildings, in dark alleyways,  on lamp posts, on street signs, and on sidewalks.

I’ve always thought that these displays spoke more to the true heart and soul of a city’s culture than the dark, guarded museums and galleries that make you pay to step inside.

In Brussels, we roamed the narrow alleyways and side streets, searching for these secret soulful imprints. We found silliness, thoughtful words, love, pop cult/culture, and entire building walls filled with art – comic book characters going about their adventures, like the noisy traffic in the world below didn’t exist.

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s.caldwell & j.payne. 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s.caldwell. & j.payne. 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: j.payne. 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s.caldwell. 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s. caldwell & j. payne 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s. caldwell & j. payne 2010

Brussels, Belgium. Photo: s. caldwell & j. payne 2010

In Reykjavik, we stumbled upon an entire secret courtyard full of eccentric, vulgar, politically subversive, and beautifully strange spray painted murals. Walls and walls of colour screamed out to us, beckoning us to enter and explore. We split off, cameras in hand, snapping away with urgency and awe as we stitched together the fragments of artistic narrative.

Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: s.caldwell. & s.hancock. 2011

Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: s.caldwell. & s.hancock. 2011

Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: s.caldwell. 2011

Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: s. hancock 2011

If you decide to take on the role of ‘detective’, you’ll find that street art is everywhere. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate or grande as the images you generally think of (although these are so stunning, and would be a privilege to witness) – even a tiny stencil or a word can transform the ordinary environment, infusing it with something beautiful, meaningful, inspiring, or subversive.

Keri Smith has a great resource that encourages you to dig beyond what you think you know about graffiti and guerilla art. In her book, The Guerilla Art Kit: Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out Into the World (for fun, non-profit, and world domination), she writes,

“Modern culture with its overwhelming wealth of advertising, mass media, and mass communication often teaches us to tune out, to disconnect, because there is a limit to how much information we can process on a given day…In an urban environment it becomes necessary to form a direct connection with the landscape, with aspects of the natural world, or with a greater community. Creating street art is one way to foster that connection. By adding to the landscape, I am reclaiming it as my own – I am now an active participant in how it operates and a partial creator of its complex language….As a street art enthusiast I find myself searching for examples of artists leaving their marks in anonymous and subtle ways…For a moment I am taken out of my known world and presented with an alternative, one that is unexpected and daring, one that makes me think about the space a little differently.” (Keri Smith, The Guerilla Art Kit, p. 9-10)

When I moved into a new apartment several years ago, this was the sight I gazed at through one of my windows. It made me smile everyday. Years later (after it was painted over), I found out that it was my friend Thom that had made the art. Hopefully the defeated little powerbox has found its freedom…

This was painted outside of my friend’s former apartment in Toronto, Ontario. Love and proper spelling are two things that I really appreciate…

Take the time to explore the hidden places in the cities you visit…What are your favourite examples of street art? 


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