Some of you may have seen that in December a new artwork by the infamous Banksy was left in Peckham, London, before being stolen not long after. It hit the news and inspired this month’s Creative Protest blog: Graffiti and Street Art.
As with a lot of Banksy’s work there was much speculation when the artwork first appeared as to who the true artist was. Once it was confirmed to be a Banksy work, it became the centre of a lot of media attention, and it was taken within an hour of it being authenticated. Banksy’s art is not created to be sellable and pretty, but rather a commentary on the world we live in. It is believed by many of Banksy’s followers that this most recent depiction, which showed three drones on a stop sign, is a call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Similar depictions of drone art appeared at Banksy's Walled Off hotel in Bethlehem, which was created in 2017. The artist describes the hotel as having; "the worst view of any hotel in the world" – which refers to the wall in the West Bank, which surrounds Bethlehem. A well-known piece shown in the Walled Off hotel is the ‘Scar of Bethlehem’, which was put up in 2019. Perhaps even more poignant now with the recent increase in conflict in Palestine and Israel, the piece depicts the Nativity scene reimagined outside the Bethlehem Wall, and the star is re-created by a bullet holein the wall above the Holy Family. It reminds me of the nativity scene which was shared around social media last Christmas. The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, on the West Bank, shared an image of their nativity which had Jesus wrapped in a keffiyeh (a traditional Palestinian head scarf) and laid in a pile of rubble. This was created by the church to represent the reality of many children being born in Palestine at this time. On 23rd December the Revd Dr Munther Isaac preached “In Gaza today, God is under the rubble”. Although four years separate the two Nativity scenes, it is clear the themes of both are running even stronger today.
Banksy is most well-known for his work with stencils and paint. Although arguably the most famous street artist, he was not the first to do this type of work. In fact, much of his work is inspired by French stencil street artist Blek La Rat, who is described often as the father of stencil graffiti. He is best known for his graffitied rats around Paris, which remind people living there that although it is beautiful on the surface there are ‘rats’ underneath it all. This is both literal, and metaphorical, suggesting that the problems and social issues faced in Paris are ‘under the surface’ and cannot necessarily be seen unless they are looked for. In 2003 he made a campaign against the war in Iraq, stencilling posters around Paris. He describes this art as a form of ‘Propaganda’ because he can make one stencil and repeat it over and over. One of these pieces of art was an image of a solider carrying a child. He says that painting in the street is ‘a fight for him’ because he is scared of being caught by the police or by someone who does not like street art.
Although we often imagine just one artist with a spray can creating street art, murals and pieces can often be commissioned by groups or charities, to spread messages or raise awareness of campaigns. For example, in 2016, We Are Europe, a pro-EU campaign group commissioned the ‘Kiss of Death’ piece. Inspired by the 1990 Berlin Wall creation by Dmitri Vrubel, which shows Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in an embrace, Paintsmiths Of Bristol worked with We Are Europe to create a similar mural in Bristol. This one depicts Boris Johnson in a passionate kiss with Donald Trump. The mural read “Not #InFor This? Register to vote on the EU referendum now”. It was created to encourage people to vote remain in the UK’s referendum from the EU in 2016.
Provocative art in public spaces doesn’t come without its controversy. When art is placed in public spaces, it is thrust upon people in a way which it is not when in a gallery or exhibition causing them to come to terms with and have their eyes opened to issues they otherwise wouldn’t normally. As with most forms of street performances, those passing by have no choice but to engage with the art they are seeing, whether that is positive or not. This is partly why it is a powerful tool for street artists. When people go to an exhibition or gallery, they will choose to explore the art which appeals to them, and perhaps won’t look outside of their comfort zone, particularly when engaging in political pieces. Creating work which exists only in public spaces gives it an increased sense of poignancy. With street art its location is important to its meaning. For example, the art at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel is made more poignant by its location, when removed its meaning is lessened. You will also find that when paintings become famous and are mass-produced their meaning is lost again. This was highlighted by the artist himself in 2018 when one of his pieces was put up for auction, and as soon as it was sold- shredded. There is also a prejudice with street art that it means an area is not thriving. This is where the debate about graffiti being political vandalism stems from. However, a study from the University of Warwick indicates that street art in London is generally now associated with improving economic conditions of urban neighbourhoods. (BBC, 2016). As the public’s views and the way in which we approach street art changes, it may be that we begin seeing more and more paint on the walls. Such as in New Brighton…
A few years ago I was involved in the organisation of a community theatre event in a small town in Merseyside, New Brighton. New Brighton is a coastal town, once a hot tourist destination, however the shape of the town has drastically changed with the introduction of package holidays meaning people holiday in the UK less. This meant the whole landscape of the town had to be reimagined and changed. The town was thus redesigned and covered in murals, including paintings of stories and legends from the town’s history, and murals of local heroes such as this RNLI lifeguard on the side of a house in the town. Painted in September 2020, this portrait of Mike Jones, was done to mark his 40 years of service with the charity.
Communitites and areas can be brought together by new street art, which is designed to highlight the positive aspects of where they are left. Politics can be divisive which adds to the controversy of some street art. However, works which are there to only celebrate heritage and community are likely to be less disputed. Murals are a common way for communities to begin coming together to contribute to something beautiful. It shows a care for the area they live in and promotes positivity. For example, the refugee charity I volunteer for on the Wirral are planning on building a mural together to decorate the gardens there, it is made up of hands of those who use the services at the charity and the volunteers. It is a beautiful representation of different people and backgrounds joining together to build something for their community. Where William lives the community joined together during covid to decorate their shared gardens. Similarly, in Glasgow, the charity South Seeds worked with the local community to re-vamp the back of an old changing room into something beautiful. The changing rooms back onto a recreational ground, and had been considered an ‘eye-sore’ for quite some time, until South Seeds worked with the local community to re-design it into something new.
As street art grows in popularity, it is important that we remember its roots in radical, political expression. Creating art and imposing it on others can have a significant effect on those who bear witness to it. I do not say ‘imposing’ in a negative way. In fact quite the opposite, I feel art which is brought beyond the walls of galleries and into the street is the best way to engage those who do not normally walk through the gallery doors. Art which is on bus routes, walks to work, or outside shops is going to be looked at regularly, and therefore carries powerful messages in its ability to reach wide audiences. Street art and graffiti finds those who are not necessarily intending to engage with the arts on that day. Some art must remain where it was left, because to move it is to rip it away from where it’s intended to live, and so the meanings are lessened. As with the nativity by the Bethlehem wall, the life guard looking out to the sea, the rats in Paris, the meaning of street art is intrinsically linked to its location.
Call to action:
Street art doesn’t have to be large paintings on walls, consider designing smaller posters which can be put up in windows of houses/flats/cars.
Find local tours or walks which focus on and show you street art in your local area.
Read the article from Ric Stott in issue 142 of Movement magazine on this topic.