Where Place Becomes Canvas

Monday, April 1, 2019
Nancy Langham-Hooper

When my friend Catherine moved back to Norway from England, she missed the squirrels that would run along her back fence in Oxford: wary, trembling and unintentionally hilarious. Though she had grown up in ‘the Bible Belt of Norway’, she realised how much she had forgotten its ways. People tended to shiver, like squirrels, at her ideas and opinions. As she tried to both be her true self and behave like a local, she could feel the incomprehension and judgement directed towards her. It was that silent disapproval that finally led her to act out.

One night, as her husband minded their sleeping children, she crept out of the house with an armful of rebellion. The next morning, the townspeople awoke to squirrels: running up the drainpipes two by two, quivering on utility boxes and phone booths. Made of glued paper that would eventually wear away, she asserted her true self on a place that couldn’t accept it, and it made her feel a bit better. Catherine’s squirrels are perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing street art, but for me they are everything that makes it unique.

Street art and graffiti are certainly different genres (at least, according to most city councils), but they are difficult to separate historically. Most graffiti/street art used to be illegal until recent years, and the most common type was tagging, a marking of territory by gangs or just an individual’s rebellious mark on the city. Each person had their tag, a unique monogram that was carefully worked up and practiced over time. Police tracking down graffiti artists would sometimes seize school notebooks, looking for preliminary drawings of a tag to connect to the various places in the city it had surfaced. Tags remind me of holes punched in walls, anger appearing on a city, in places obvious and hidden. Graffiti is not done by the powerful, by those who built the smooth concrete railway walls or the bridges or the laneways. Yet graffiti, a simple tag, says to everyone in that place, ‘I am here, too. Fuck you.’

Murals can have that same message. The first time I went to Belfast, about ten years ago, I was surprised to see how the evidence of the Troubles was still very much alive in the street art carefully marking Protestant and Catholic areas around the city. Badly drawn masked men with guns flashing particular colours on the side of a non-descript building told the viewer in no uncertain terms, ‘Be on our team or be afraid’. It was scary, intimidating. Well-drawn portraits of heroes and martyrs were set next to text about not giving up the fight. In the heyday of the Troubles, less so today, these murals were a kind of map. You knew if you had wandered into a Protestant or Catholic neighbourhood by the smiling faces of the dead, the masks, the guns and the colours.

Though not always meant to intimidate, most street art attempts to shout to the viewer, to grab their attention. By moving on from simple tags or phrases, artists were able to create a more complex and compelling message for anyone who happened by. Rather than a raw expression of anger, street art became something for the viewer to consider – a cry for justice, or a reclaiming of heritage. This is especially evident in Harlem, New York. The traditionally black, though currently culturally diversifying, neighbourhood is wallpapered with art: small and large murals, and even large-scale mosaics celebrating African-American culture. Much of it commemorates black heritage and achievement, and especially the flourishing of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance in the early twentieth century. Walking through Harlem, you see jazz greats play silently among a riot of colours, while the dignified portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama welcome the viewer to a place that is historically, provocatively, proudly black. Some murals have a didactic purpose: warning viewers of the dangers of drugs or the importance of education. Some are political, claiming the place as Native American land or dealing in many and various ways with the long history of racism in the United States. To know what the community in Harlem thinks about itself, what they are hoping and struggling with, you only need to look at the colourful walls.

Those walls also function as interruption. In a never-ending metropolis, street art can be a reminder of the humanity within urban spaces. In Melbourne, I love the cheeky smiling dragons that hide behind bins, or the lush jungle that takes up a whole side of a house, turning the laneway into a botanical extravaganza, with flowers the size of small cars and leaves that could shelter whole families. Whatever the viewer was preoccupied with as they approached, the art asserts itself into their day: ‘What if there was a jungle here?’, ‘What do you see in this face?’, ‘What do you imagine in these colours?’. Though now often sanctioned by the city, or commissioned by private owners, street art still defiantly asserts its place. From I am here to we are here to you are here.

That’s what Catherine did. No one can know if her scampering squirrels changed anyone’s mind, but they did help Catherine finally take ownership of her surroundings.

Beginning as anger and rebellion, those paper and glue disruptions became her reconciliation to her past, a marking of her old and new territory, and a plea for the passers-by to see things differently.

About Nancy Langham-Hooper

Nancy Langham-Hooper is an art historian and writer based in Melbourne. Academically, she specialises in British nineteenth-century painting. Her non-academic writing, however, covers many diverse topics within art and culture. She is proud to be a Digital Writer in Residence for Writers Victoria.