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.
Street art was made famous by artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, artists whose work is now recognizable and the subject of museum shows. Banksy’s work, particularly, gives a message and a sense of place. On the Palestinian side of the dividing wall, a stencil of a young girl using balloons to lift her over the wall is portrayed, along with a ladder spanning the height of the wall and cracks in it to show a tropical paradise on the other side. There’s a pattern here; that public art arises wherever people are divided, repressed, or silenced. It becomes a tool by which they can gain support. In addition to being beautiful, it is a way to draw attention to political issues.
In other places, street art is just that: art with a very public home. I reached a piazza in Venice once where the sun shone brightly down on me after an alleyway of darkness, slowing me as I raised my face to meet its morning rays. I looked down and saw a stencil of a woman’s face raised to the sky, sunlit. This art reflects reality, causing the onlooker to pause and realize that each moment is worthy of capturing, for this type of art is no different from photography in that manner.
Around the corner from that plaza I found a blackbird on a bench, a cat on a bridge; graffiti that I would see duplicated around the city. It offers a continuous experience; much like how I saw Gift Giver all over my neighborhood, as a visitor I began to see the paths of other such artists by spying the cats around town.
My favorite street art doesn’t necessarily have a profound message. On an old house in West Oakland someone had written “Ira Glass + Terry Gross” among other tags and graffiti, which beyond being hilarious shows the preferences of the people. I don’t think there’s much NPR graffiti out there, so this tag seemed pretty special to me. I love a sketch of a man’s face, canalside, in Amsterdam, a little boy with a slingshot not far away, a girl with her cone-bearing dog in Berlin. Sometimes, it just feels like art. Art you’ve been lucky enough to catch on your journey.