Whenever I travel, I have my camera nearby. I am forever a photographer of cities; I rarely record who I was with or what sights we visited. Instead, I attempt to find the breath of a city, the flow, and the people of it. More often than not, I find the most showing examples of pride and place by photographing street art. My father will never see it as art, claiming that graffiti ruins a city, shows disrespect for the buildings and integrity of a place. While the defacing of property isn’t really a selling point for me, I look past it to see the art of it.
I love street art; I find it compelling and drastic. It is the result of someone so driven to tell a story that just putting it on paper does not suffice. It must be made public. I’ll spend more time on a side street with interesting walls than I will walking through a curated show sometimes (seriously, I did the Met in an hour). Graffiti tells you the humor of a place, the struggle, and, I find, what the underrepresented need to say. It’s like MSNBC for the underground, a forum taken to say your soapbox piece. The revolution will not be televised because you will read it on the walls of each city.
Having lived in West Oakland, CA for so long, I grew accustomed to the Gift Giver popping up at every turn. The first “Gift Givers” were written in plain, legible type, in spray paint, accompanied by a simple sad face. Not emoticon sad, more like finger puppet sad. I didn’t know the story behind it when it first started popping up, and in turn my imagination ran wild. I imagined stories similar to The Giving Tree, the Shel Silverstein book, about someone or something that always gives and never receives. In West Oakland, a neglected and disadvantaged neighborhood that is fighting like a bantam to overcome the such obstacles as poor air quality, minimal services, and limited access to fresh food, such graffiti can resound with meaning. It turns out that the meaning is entirely different than what I interpreted it to be, and is quite a statement on the state of things in and of itself, but that’s the beauty of such art, it becomes part of your experience through your own filter.
A few years back my sister and I traveled to the mecca of street art- East Berlin. Not only are the remnants of the Berlin wall stupefying, but the art on their surfaces provides additional layers of meaning. Among the plethora of names, dates, and “this guy was here’s”, are snippets of the past. Murmurs and declarations alike, this art was the cry out from someone who wasn’t given a voice. Many people’s voices, in this case, as the wall filled with art and hope and became a symbol for overcoming great obstacles. And indeed, what Berlin screamed to me was that it was grabbing freedom, art, and self-expression by the lapels and running wild with it. This city felt more hopeful and present than any I’ve ever experienced. Among the miles of wall remnants, I was stopped cold by the singular and simple “This too shall pass” written quietly in small, heartbreaking print.