Street life is art. Our intertwined ways of being intersect as we move through our communities, cities and regions. Everyday movement through public space creates a complex network as people walk and roll, traveling and interacting with different destinations and intentions, in close proximity to one another and yet without, most of the time, collisions or conflicts. People can be an individual in a self-organized, functioning system. For more than half a century, William H. Whyte, Erving Goffman, and many others have shown that the simple act of being a pedestrian, a person moving along the streets with other people, is a sophisticated interactive dance.
Yet streets are so much more than transportation. People like to be around other people so they are drawn towards spaces where others gather. People use public spaces in planned and unplanned ways. They sit and talk, sell or buy necessities, recreate or work, observe and are seen, and engage in myriad ways. These integral interactions are community, urbanites living together among strangers and kin. Everyday activities reimagine what is possible and enact new ways of living in concert with others.
Public actions regularly cross or butt against existing legal boundaries. Life in public occurs despite restrictive regulatory regimes. A quick scan of any urban code shows numerous ordinances that prohibit what activities can occur in public or control how they play out. Urban dwellers abide by and disregard regulations to meet their needs. Community standards guide action as much or more than the law. Public space management is likewise adaptable and flexible, reflecting how people live as much as what the laws says. Many ordinances are inconsistently or sporadically enforced. Some are disregarded outright. While this creates space for people, the regulations themselves also create risks from enforcement and punishment.
People’s presence in public is a claim to that space, and more importantly, a claim to be a member of the society. People’s presence as members of the multiple publics that comprise a society is more powerful than a specific law or existing institution. When people take to the street, they can change a regime through mobilizing in social movements, change rules by regularly adapting spaces to better meet their needs, change their lives by finding space to work, to be a community, or to survive. Public spaces are reflections of our communities and the ebb and flow of daily life, and they simultaneously shape those communities, changes, and daily practices.
Street art is life. Painting on walls adapts and claims urban spaces, reconsidering a wall or infrastructure, an innocuous spot that becomes vibrant, alive, or a frightening sign of decline or despair. The interpretation of street art reflects the divergent spots, pieces, and perceptions of art on buildings and other city surfaces. Street artists make claims to space, crossing boundaries and definitions that the material objects represent. This art unsettles dominant notions of property as graffiti artists write on walls they do not own.
The streets became a place for art in New Orleans, a United States city along the Gulf of Mexico, that suffered catastrophic flooding in 2005. A storm breached the protective levees that kept the water out of the city, and eighty percent of the city flooded, leaving empty unsecured buildings along city streets. People fought to secure their lives and livelihoods, their homes and families.
As people rebuilt the city, New Orleans artist Michael “Rex” Dingler posted artistic signs with upbeat messages on telephone poles along the streets. This began his art initiative called NoLA Rising. In response, anti-graffiti activist Fred Radtke grayed out the signs. Radtke’s action encouraged other artists to paint on the walls. They sometimes asked a property owner for permission, and other times they claimed spots that worked for their message or piece, recognizing that property, an institution rather than a thing, is circumstantial and can also adapt and be adapted. One such person with the moniker HARSH traversed the devastated city. People saw HARSH written across buildings and agreed that it was harsh to live with so much abandoned property and loss. Artists from elsewhere, including Banksy and Swoon, came to New Orleans, raising the visibility of the public conversation—what is art, what is property and the harsh realities of New Orleans after catastrophe. The street artists, in Kurt Iveson’s words, created a city in common.
Graffiti writers sparked the current street art movement in the United States: young people, mostly but not all Black and Brown, mostly but not all men, wrote on the walls in Philadelphia and New York as their cities and neighborhoods declined in the 1960s. Graffiti spoke to city, with the city, in the city, inspiring some who built a street art movement and was reviled by others fearing what the changes could bring. Street artists reshaped the city and art in the city, making it possible to be in the city in new ways. Street art traveled from the streets to galleries. London’s Tate Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles among many others have had street art exhibits. The vibrant displays of life on neighborhood walls also have been reinterpreted in property relations. Street art now precedes gentrification rather than indicates decline.
Street artists and graffiti writers, acting outside the law, created different cities, ways of seeing, and being. The restrictive regulations nevertheless can hurt and, in some situations, kill. Street artists have died running from the police and dangers continue. Inconsistent enforcement of regulations is a tool deployed to control those who are working, walking, and living in public. No one should have to ask permission to live, but the web of public space regulations gives cover to those who want to uphold unjust power hierarchies, and in the process, determine who can live and who may die.
The power hierarchies within cities can be disguised as art. Programs that allow or facilitate street art only in controlled situations dictate who belongs. Activists have called out these power structures in recent years when they have drawn attention to public sculptures that memorialize figures held up as influential society builders. These public monuments to slaveholders, colonizers, and unjust political regimes dot contemporary landscapes, long after most people would publicly defend colonization or slavery. Instead, their defenders claim they are important pieces of art or represent history, to be saved without the values they represent. The movements for Black lives, sparked by violence against Black people who are killed for being Black in public, have inspired a new period of racial reckoning. These movements have renewed attention to the sculptures placed throughout cities as well as the commonplace naming of public streets, parks, and buildings that uphold illegitimate power.
Activists have demanded that racist monuments come down, regardless of the artist who designed the sculpture or the non-racist intent of using them to reinterpret history. They have toppled statues, removed them, dumped them into a harbor. In U.S. cities, they have written “no more white supremacy” on a Confederate general and cut off the foot of a brutal colonizer who ordered his subordinates to cut off the feet of Acoma men over 25. While these acts break the law, in doing so, they reclaim the space, pointing to the violence perpetuated by the monuments’ continued presence. Dell Upton rightfully notes that the demands to remove monuments is a discussion about the values a society endorses in public for the multiple publics who use the spaces. Street art is life, and monuments are living attestations to values a society collectively holds, thereby upholding colonization and slavery, brutality, and state violence.
Hundreds of counter memorials and vernacular monuments are alternatives to state sanctioned monumentality. Often placed without authorization or as a temporary installation, individual artists and collectives draw attention to events or trends that might otherwise be ignored or presented in neutral ways that abdicates accountability. Counter memorials have commemorated events in ways that elevate the impact on people. They have recognized the Jewish, Sinti, and Roma people who were murdered during the Holocaust in European countries through recognizing the spaces they lived or walked. They have uplifted the missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girls in the Canada and the United States that the state wanted to ignore. Some counter memorials are formalized as state sanctioned memorials, and others remain outside the law temporarily or semi-permanently. Each memorial reflects a story with diverse perspectives.
The streets and other public spaces are an intricate interplay of these diverse perspectives, activities, practices, and ways of being. People have tremendous ability to live with and navigate these spaces in non-conflictual ways. Controversies do arise nevertheless over monuments, street art, and the wide variety of activities from street vending to living outside. Whose community values or ways of being should prevail? A starting point may be that laws and regulations are only legitimate if they honor all peoples and living things’ abilities to survive. Racism and colonization, and laws and regulations that perpetuate or create cover for them, rob people of their lives, cultures, livelihoods, and wellbeing. Some people, those who are harmed by existing systems of power and exclusion, have deeper insight into a place’s multiple meanings and potential ways for use and action.
Can urban life be based on an assumption that people—all people—have the right to be, and the life in urban space is a collective, iterative, dynamic work of art? Letting people be in public allows spontaneous, necessary, and varied ways to grow and thrive. But using minor and neutral public space regulations – such as those that prevent street vending or art installations – to deny people the mechanisms to survive, communicate, and thrive is not only problematic but should also be seen as illegitimate. Through public space regulations, power and hierarchy are disguised as community spoken in the softer language of safety, respect, and history. People need no permission to live their lives or to adapt spaces to facilitate their wellbeing. Acting outside the law, people change this world and risk state violence. Can public space embrace the interactive dance of public life within the law?
Goffman, Erving, 1971, Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Basic Books.
Iveson, Kurt, 2010a, Introduction: Graffiti, street art and the city. City, Vol. 14, 25-32
Whyte, Willaim H, 1988 City: Rediscovering the center. New York: Doubleday.