Street Art and Urban Creativity through a Socio-Political Lens


Since the birth of graffiti art on New York’s subways in the 1970s, street art has become a global phenomenon, recognizable in many of our cosmopolitan creative melting pots such as Berlin, Melbourne, London, and to my pleasant surprise, Lisbon. I have been to all of these places and seen some of the work with my own eyes. But until now I have not delved deep into its history, or considered the socio-political framework that surrounds both street art and creative projects in urban areas. Changes in the environment, technology and politics give rise to further developments in this field that cannot be ignored. From 3-5 July I attended the Lisbon Street Art and Urban Creativity International Conference produced by Urban Creativity, with delegates attending from all over the world. Three days later I am astounded by the complexity and amount of intelligence developed in this critical area of culture, that goes way beyond my admiration of Banksy’s work whilst living in Bristol, or recognition of the amount of political statements made using graffiti during and following the Arab Spring.

Graffiti was born in the 1960 and 70s. During the 70s and 80s it exploded on the New York City subway system and was labeled as vandalism commited by disaffected youth. In 1989 the government made the subway ‘graffiti free’, and this troublesome era for graffiti artists lead to a growing phenomenon, with graffiti going global. In NYC graffiti reinvented itself by hitting the streets. There was always an energy to put a stop to it, but it continued to reinvent itself. Then Graffiti artists started to travel the world. There have broadly been two main themes running through literature about graffiti:

1 – General Lawlessness; an assumption that it is illegal and criminal, done by specific social groups, and male dominated

2 – Graffiti as Resistance; it is ‘oppositional’, ‘hostile’, and ‘anarchistic’ in relation to race, class and social issues.

NYC has continued to be a mecca for graffiti artists. Today a lot of contemporary and elaborate graffiti is done with permission. Artists want to help the communities that they live in, not cause trouble or be hostile. Some research has suggested that many graffiti writers just want to be creative, and are not necessarily looking at social and political issues. This gives rise to the ‘Art vs Vandalism’ debate, where does art stop and crime begin?

Streets of Lisbon

Streets of Lisbon

Not Just Writing on the Wall

As the public sphere becomes more open and accessible, this gives rise to increased public expression. Contemporary world cities have to learn how to deal with these new ideas so graffiti art is no longer simply categorized as vandalism; smart cities will have smart street artists. Lisbon City Council for example has done some risky and innovative work. Architects and urban designers are always looking for new practices, taking into consideration a range of factors including the environment, citizenship, social divisions, and the appropriation of space. Urban design and visual arts have a commonality, and in Lisbon this is recognized in both academic and professional design circles. Street art and urban culture are now everywhere, also useful to commercial companies and advertising. Hence governments have started to create policies to incorporate them into the cultural agenda. But it’s not the same world over of course. There are different typologies of public policies:

Zero tolerance: in Stockholm for example, street art is criminalized so artists will be punished and prosecuted.

Participatory: in Lisbon the state has a collaborative approach with artists, through regeneration and channeling of unregulated approaches.

Broken windows theory: this was introduced in the 1980s and based on the idea of norm setting and signaling effect, that monitoring and maintaining urban environments may prevent the development of vandalism. Barcelona used to be one of the most prominent centres of urban culture until 2004, then municipal regulation introduced punishment and eradication. There is a conflict between public creative expression in Barcelona, and need for policy changes.

Street Art as Preserve-able Popular Culture?

One could argue street art is becoming increasingly mainstream, and there is further debate regarding the work; is it kitsch and middle-brow, losing its edge since its birth? Indeed nothing stays the same and evolution is preventable. There are currently street art tours taking place all over the world, as well as exhibitions. Banksy has been framed behind glass in some cities in the name of conservation – is this weird and changing the nature and original concept of pieces? Some street art includes name-tags as you would expect to see in a museum. Today you will find documentation, leaflets and online information about street art locations and its become part of the cultural landscape and offering of many cities. In 2009 Banksy’s work was displayed in the Bristol Museum in England receiving approximately 4000 visitors per day-both local and global-due to the popularity of his work, and the Banksy brand. He himself says that you cannot really put street art in a museum, it loses its edge as it is no longer in the street, but deliberately placed in a public space for a different type of consumption. But there is also a positive angle regarding the valuation of street art as cultural heritage. In the Unites States for example, organizations have specifically been set up to conserve street paintings from being changed by natural weather denigration and graffiti. In NYC effort has been put into maintaining hip hop art, in Berlin the East Side Gallery has been protected. There are many paintings in Lisbon from the 1970s that reflect significant political changes in Portugal. Some still exist and others are disappearing; do we need to maintain them for the future? Well I think it would be nice if they still existed as historical pieces, there is always room for the new, but the old is valuable information that we can’t afford to lose. In this context such work becomes a cultural asset.

Tactical Urbanism

Urbanists have talked about political public space for years, as it is used to reclaim rights and open dialogues. The media and technology have opened new doors, but physical space is still important. In 2013 there were many riots in Brazil in relation to the world cup and its impact on citizens. People took to the streets in Sao Paulo and Rio, the former has very little public space as most of it is privatized, as well as a weak public transport system. Military police often repress such protests, but the public responds with peaceful creative responses, such as a graffiti and poster campaign called ‘Mais Amor Por Favor’ (more love please) to encourage peace and contemplation whilst struck in traffic jams, and to bring a warm glow over Brazilian cities. This demonstrates that public space is a form of communication, just like the media. It is used by individuals, public institutions and independent agents to creatively express a range of messages. What was once considered as ‘gang art’ is considered as ‘governmental art’ such as ‘The Point’ in New York City. Places such as Wales and Singapore even have legitamised graffiti walls; there is increasing governance and acceptance of graffiti art.

Escadaria Salaron by JW

Escadaria Salaron by JW

The ‘urban consumer’ creates and consumes the city. Cities are multicultural and forever changing and growing with everyone engaging with space differently. As populations rise and cities literally grow taller, it will be interesting to see how artists respond to new dimensions and use of space. My prediction is that as well as new ideas developing using digital technology, graffiti and urban projects will continue with an increase in state approved work, that will arguably not be as edgy and innovative as some ‘illegal’ work, which will continue to appear.

Asian Women and Street Art

There is a difference in Asia compared with the Euro-American context. Words and symbols have been used in numerous Asian countries on walls and bamboo for numerous years as part of tradition and culture, and sometimes takes on different meanings. Kaid Ashton is a Canadian born teacher, photographer and traveller. In the 90s he started to take photos of graffiti and rail tracks, then moved onto people, as its is the best way he believes he can try to understand a city and its culture. He has travelled around numerous Asian cities taking photos. One set of photos he has named “Women: Strong and Confident” and he posts huge blow up prints as posters on walls around the cities he is in.

Kaid Ashton, Women: Strong and Confident

Kaid Ashton, Women: Strong and Confident

“I don’t think society does a good job of portraying women in a healthy way. Most images we see are manipulated images, where the women look like Barbie dolls” (Ashton). The prints are looked at by passers by and will be appreciated in different ways, and give a range of impressions of women. Ashton challenges gender stereotypes and explores different representations of women, to compete with dominant messages from global advertising giants. I love this project as I love to travel, take photos, and explore feminism. What’s more is that it makes me curious about street art and graffiti in India, that I will research on my next visit as I have already discovered a strong online presence.

Street Art as Cultural Diplomacy

There has been much cultural and political exchange between Portugal and Brazil. In the 1960s statues were symbols for the global stage to illustrate the power of leadership and Catholicism in these countries. Today, underground art demonstrates the artistic and historical links between Rio and Lisbon through the work of Os Gemeos and Vhils. Vhils is Portuguese and one example of his work is that he has collaborated with victims of the militia processes in favelas in Rio; the negative effects of the Olympics on local people. Os Gemeos are Brazilian twins who were born in Sao Paulo. Their work attacks unequal divisions in society, with their clever creations on display throughout the city of Sao Paulo and Lisbon, attacking capitalism and globalism. So street art can have a political effect without being explicitly political. These artists have been recognized and permitted to make work in both countries, and the exchange between the two nations demonstrates how street art in this context can also be considered as a political tool of cultural diplomacy.

Os Gemeos

Os Gemeos

In an increasingly globalized interdependent world, in which the rise of mass communication technology ensure we have greater access to each other the ever before, cultural diplomacy is critical to fostering peace and stability throughout the world. Cultural diplomacy has the unique ability to influence the ‘global public opinion’ and ideology of individuals, communities, cultures or nations. Like numerous other creative practices including dance music and theatre, here street art and graffiti become tools that can contribute to recognition, debate, and change in justice, human rights, peace, diversity, and intercultural dialogues. This is why the arts and creative practice are so critical, as projects with the public, communities and young people can bring about social and political, local and global changes. I look forward to the growing understanding, appreciation and practice of street art and urban creativity around the world. A practice that can educate, inspire, challenge and free people’s heart and minds.


2 thoughts on “Street Art and Urban Creativity through a Socio-Political Lens

  1. Pingback: The Rise of Street Art in India | Harpreet Kaur Creative

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s