When studying the relationships between certain spaces and places, it has been found that Graffiti can allow identities to be created or messages about spaces to be shown. What is important to remember is that Graffiti can be found in almost any city in the world, often being used as a form of communication, expression and a way of providing and establishing a character. In the case of Belfast in Northern Ireland, murals are places on street corners to remind the local population about the history behind the area; and although Belfast has had a particularly difficult history in the last thirty to forty years, these murals bring the community together and in some instances seek to establish a more prosperous future.
New York could also be referenced as another city that’s renowned for its’ Graffiti. I think I can speak confidently and say that when most people think of New York, they think of the city subway system. In most cases anyone who’d be travelling through the city would see that each carriage would have some form of tag, painting, reference or statement. The fact that most can picture New York being covered with Graffiti creates a certain kind of homeliness, characterising each neighbourhood whilst providing a stronger sense of identity. Tagging in this sense is a rather recent phenomenon being born out of the introduction of hip-hop to the suburbs of New York. It’s the result of the desire to be acknowledged for personalising an area that was previously impersonal or dominated by the cultural ‘norm’. This is but one example of how Graffiti is an effective case study for conceptualising Geographies of Place, Space and Power.
Although the term ‘Graffiti’ carries with it negative connotations; being associated with structured anarchy and subsequent crimes against the reigning hegemony, it is also associated with youth cultures that usually lie at a state of ‘liminality’. In this sense, Graffiti provides youths with a useful way of portraying social exclusion, poverty, conflict and poor social relations, being an influential form of expression. What many may argue is that this practice is in effect a form of transgression, as the majority of the ‘writers’ which use these urban spaces as their canvasses, portray hard-hitting messages which frequently battle over the meaning and structure of the social relationship which institutions and the dominant hegemonic groups have governed lives with. This, as cited by Mitchell, ‘Culture War’ within society between those created by the institution and those created by the resistance is frequently shown through the medium of Graffiti. It also tells us that culture is always related to social, political and economic practices.
Graffiti; although considered to be very ‘transgressive’ in nature by some, is important as it can create a sense of belonging. Given that places are characterised by spaces and meanings; murals and artwork which refer to the local area allow the local communities to create a stronger attachment with their heritage.
But, although we’ve mentioned how Graffiti can create places and characterise spaces, we’ve yet to shed much attention on how Graffiti can be a reflection of power. Belfast was one brief example, which should be elaborated on. I remember travelling to Belfast when I was in University, studying Human Geography and Planning.
I found that the city has been emphasising an awful lot of their investment into the central areas, ensuring that the city caters for those that simply wish to shop in the homogenous chain stores. Although in a sense it has been a success in providing a revitalised image for the city of Belfast; peripheral areas remind us of the troubles, the IRA, and the very separate and contrasting Republican and Protestant communities. But, to avoid going astray and to make sure that we keep in mind the significance of Graffiti rather than the roubles in Northern Ireland, I want to describe one particular experience which I will never forget. I remember walking through an area called ‘No Man’s Land’; a strip which divided a Catholic and Protestant neighbourhood. There was a turret armed with a soldier carrying a machine gun, glaring at us as we walked carefully through this baron land. Although a frightening experience, I remember being amazed by the sheer volume of Graffiti that was scattered all over the previously grey, dull concrete wall, all of which portrayed the trauma that the city had been suffering from. Even walking through this bleak corridor which could only be described as a walkway into a prison; with thick tall concrete walls covered with barbed wire, it was difficult to remove my eyes from the art. Some portrayed events and some looked to draw on a more prosperous, inclusive future. After doing additional research into the Graffiti that can be seen in Belfast, it’s interesting how many ‘writers’ from all over the globe have travelled to the city in order to give a contribution to the now positive, forward thinking community.
Keeping in mind that we’re looking to highlight how Graffiti can be strong reflection of power, it might be a suitable point to introduce another example. Graffiti has recently turned into big business. Rather than providing a social statement away from the orthodox, corporations have realised that Graffiti can provide a profitable return. What was once a rebellious form of expression commonly associated with the younger generations; it seems that the art form has had a difficulty in recent years to find its ground. Galleries are now creating exhibits, brands are now contacting artists to design logos, new clothes and even video games. Graffiti it seems, has had a new form of international recognition. What this recognition provides for such an art form is a dilemma. Questions will now ask whether the Graffiti is acceptable in a gallery when its message is one which encourages rebellious actions. This dilemma which has come about has been mainly due to the process of globalisation. What we know about this multifaceted phenomenon is that it can create an identity problem. Given that popular artists such as Banksy may have gone corporate, the underlying message still stays the same; it’s that spaces and places need to be taken and made by those in which it occupies.
Concluding with an observation on Banksy, the popularity of his artwork has allowed his Graffiti to remain on the walls around the city of Bristol, gaining international recognition from other Graffiti artists and even celebrities who wish to purchase some of his pieces. Although ironic in a sense that Banksy is now considered to be a brand; milking profits from those who find his images rather amusing, questions are raised as to whether he gains any of the profits as his identity is still not known. From commodifying Graffiti he has been able to pass his message across and gain recognition for his alternative approach to taking and making urban spaces and places; speaking to the populations who were previously bewildered about certain topics of discussion, but has Banksy been considered as a critique to the generalisations of graffiti art, or the true meaning behind Graffiti as an art form?
by Ryan Job
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