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Street Art as a Tool to Urban Dialogue

Anna Stolyarova (edited by Victoria Gonzalez, UvA)

Street Art Museum Amsterdam

Museums in Context and Partnership Conference

April 19-20th, 2018

Topics to be Discussed:

Evolution of Graffiti to Street Art to Legitimised Art Medium

Urban Identity and New Stakeholders of Public Space

Romantic Anthology - Memory and Heritage

The Eco-Museum

Evolution of Graffiti to Street Art to Legitimised Art Medium

Long seen as an illegal and unsightly blight in urban areas, artistic graffiti has evolved from a criminally punishable activity (tagging and graffiti) to seeing a gradual acceptance as a legitimate artistic medium with new names: urban art, aerosol art or street art. Explorations in regulation and definition has resulted in the distancing of the Street Art movement from its roots of graffiti writing, and thus produced: “questions of aesthetics, property rights, and the relationship between the arts and gentrification, as well as begin a discussion between most prominent sectors: the art world and the real estate business”, and, of course, the living community - its resistance, acceptance and adoption.

As a movement, street art is the product of its urban setting and a self-discovery tool to one’s urban identity, it has long had “low brow” associations and is connected, just like graffiti, to skateboard and hip-hop cultures risen from the ghettos. The “low brow” element separates it from the classic mural commissions by municipality or real estate developers (monumentalism and frescoes by professional artists). “The wall as art’s recognized and codified exhibition space has had a major role in structuring aesthetic discourse since the nineteenth century”. However, if muralism is top down, then graffiti is bottom up.

Street art broke this status quo and has become a grey area. It can be illegal and/or commissioned, as well as illegal but, later, being adopted by the community and turned into “recognized stature’. In March 2018, the world witnessed the first court case to rule in favor of protecting street art with an unprecedented decision.

“Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million ... to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens. In November, a landmark trial came to a close in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.” Though Mr. Wolkoff’s lawyers had argued that the buildings were his to treat as he pleased, the jury found he violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property. ”

In the light of ‘street art’ museums popping up around the world in various formats and forms and legal definitions of street art protection, we ask what the social responsibility of a street art museum is to a movement that is inherently anti-establishment. Using Street Art Museum Amsterdam (SAMA) as a case study, we will examine the central aspects of the controversies and debates surrounding the musealisation of street art, and explore how social cohesion is facilitated by its location.

Founded in 2010 as a means to stimulate the local economy, the museum operates as a community driven, open air research lab that defies typical expectations of a museum’s supposed authority It is this fluidity, agility and lack of permanence that positions SAMA as a unique facilitator of a the ephemeral and intangible heritage of both art and history. In a field that is struggling to be defined while being inherently anti-establishment, the public nature of an urban environment calls into question ideas of the proper place for this art to thrive (gallery vs city street) and looks deeply at the purity of the movement that is in the heat of being co-opted for gain that contradicts the very conception of the art form.

Unique to Amsterdam and a result of the city’s rapid growth and small size, SAMA operates as a living, breathing research lab experiment. With a careful eye on gentrification, real estate development, and urban renewal, the museum expands its collection and creates a dialogue about the once neglected neighborhoods around Nieuw West on the new affection of the city’s government.

Urban Identity and New Stakeholders of Public Space

“The whole art form questions private property

A political crime of passion”

The unsanctioned and illegal nature is at the centre of graffiti’s artistic ethos, and the rebellious manner in which works are created are expressions of disruption. Public art work when created by the artistic graffiti subculture are acts of urban identity, and government efforts to police the illegal activity have erased the cultural identity of both the movement and of a city’s inhabitants. This ends up being another delightful contradiction in that the ephemeral nature of street art then becomes part of the movement itself, resulting in an artistic experience that’s accessible and beyond art studio or classic museum confinement.

However, within the context of urban regeneration, the phenomenon of formerly undesirable locations being developed into exclusive areas to attract higher income inhabitants has resulted in growing acceptance of the urban landscape. The presence of street art is then a “signifier of a new urbanism”, resulting in a shift of the art from political statement that is to be removed, to a permanent aesthetic marker. The destruction of public property is then celebrated, and often co-opted by real estate developers in order to appeal to specific clientele.

“For the better part of 20 years, 5Pointz, a complex of buildings in Long Island City, was a New York rarity: an aesthetic collaboration between the developer, Jerry Wolkoff, and a scrappy crew of graffiti artists that not only became an offbeat tourist destination, but also helped transform the neighborhood into a thriving residential enclave”.

In the context of Amsterdam Nieuw-West (±125,000 residents, the biggest area of Amsterdam and the future city centre), 70% of real estate is social housing heavily subsidised by the government rather than private money, Street Art Museum Amsterdam found a loophole that facilitated living art as a new medium in its organic setting.

REPEAT: The museum is a community driven, open air research lab defies typical expectations of a museum’s supposed authority, and it is this fluidity and lack of permanence that positions SAMA as a unique facilitator of a the ephemeral and intangible heritage of both art and history. In a field that is struggling to be defined while being inherently anti-establishment, the public nature of an urban environment calls into question ideas of the proper place for this art to thrive (gallery vs city street) and looks deeply at the purity of the movement that is in the heat of being co-opted for gain that contradicts the very conception of the art form.

However, neither graffiti as a sub-culture statement of writing the names of those otherwise invisible in urban landscape, or formally commissioned art in public space or, later, advertising billboards, open the gate of dialogue between those ‘putting up the art’ and those ‘impacted by the art’.

Thus, SAMA operates in this grey area as it facilitates a form of dialogue with the city as real estate development begins to shift the area while preserving the original ‘materia prima’ of this specific art form. As a free form institution with an eco-museum goal, the museum curates a collection in the streets in tandem with artists and local residents in an attempt to preserve the distinction between commercial capitalization and artistic integrity.

Romantic Anthology - Memory and Heritage

“The term romantic refers to an artistic movement whose members, although diverse, shared questions about artists creativity and the being in life; a movement where the artist’s individual sensibility and its relation with the world had a prominent place. Always viewed from different perspectives, the term romantic embodies a contradiction in itself.

On the one hand, this term has been related with living beyond reality, in a personal and inner world that for this reason is unaware of ‘reality’. Therefore, in this vision, romanticism is understood as an useless feeling because it’s the sour of intangible ideas that are unrealistic and therefore impossible.

On the other hand, the romantic assumes the possibility and the value of the intangible to the human eyes but perceptible to the spirit; therefore the romantic feeling is born in the depth of the human heart, and brings with it the possibility to materialise the ideas, therefor it is a creative will.

In this case, romanticism becomes a call to action, a transforming feeling.”

Street art is an act of memory performed by agents in representation of a group that is inherently part of counter memory. Since memory is culturally shaped and defined, by disrupting the dynamics of power through the action of creating street art, urban artists are shifting a culture to one that represents an identity created from their own voices and action.

“The role of dissonant heritage as “created by interpretation. Not only what is interpreted, but how it is interpreted and by whom”.

The representation of identity on the ground level, within the community on a local scale, the transmission of this narrative to society challenges and disrupts societal norms. We can determine that every tag, mural, and creation done by the counter-culture artist is an act of memory that speaks out about what is being overlooked. The culture shapes the movement.

Street art as a dissonant heritage is a small-scale and homegrown action that reflects the inhabitants of the community, and speaks of the local experience that may not be widely acknowledged. The environment is a constructed identity that speaks of the spectrum of individuality within an urban space, and may be heavily contested because of its roots in unregulated action. This social forgetting “belongs to the realm of politics and power relations, being a dominant discourse produced by deliberate repression and other forms of hegemony”.

As a result, the lack of authority and ownership given to the creators and residents because if this illegal art form diminishes their role in the control of their own narrative, and thus the questioning of its legitimacy or importance to a cultural heritage causes conflict with the dominating bodies of power. “Dissonance acknowledges the inevitability that the meaning of these values will be contested and challenged, and that this in turn will have a consequence for the legitimatization-or not-of a sense of place”.

The Eco-Museum

By not existing as a traditional museum, and by not taking street art away from the neighbourhood walls, SAMA links the living with the static by immortalising a temporary art form that simultaneously creates a definition that is not authorative but done in partnership with the very creators of street art. By using street art as a means of intensifying social values and public awareness, SAMA explores solutions to preserve the intangible heritage of the political motivation of artists. Ironically, local government is debating the regulation of street art by the establishment of a street art curator position in city administration. For a movement that came from illegal and unregulated action, this is an indicator that there is a crossroad in the movement’s future.

“At the core of the new museology is an assumption that the museum is neither a center of research nor primarily a collecting institution, but it is in fact an educational instrument. The goal of the new museology was, and largely still is, the transformation of social practices through the transformation of the museum from a collection of singular expert accounts to a site of different educational engagements.”

The neighborhood once known as the Geuzenveld-Slotermeer was identified in 2007 by Amsterdam’s Housing, Communities, and Integration Minister Ella Vogelaar in her list of 40 known problem areas. In the Netherlands, it is one of the worst in facing high unemployment, crime, and low levels of education. Under the city’s new redistricting plan created in May 2010, the district was encompassed as part of ‘New West’, an amalgamation of €29,3M annual investment funds to further area development. The interest in the large and ample spaces has created a shift in need and a pushing out of inhabitants, resulting in a dialogue between the city and the neighbourhood that falls short of understanding.

SAMA seeks to use the spaces of the neighbourhood as temporary statements, seeking out walls of buildings that are inevitably to be destroyed and replaced with high rent apartments to show the life of the Nieuw West as told by its people. Using community engagement as feedback on the final outcomes, SAMA brings attention to the residents by providing a space for dialogue. Some works of art have proven to be controversial to the sentiments of local culture, while others have served as gathering spaces or landmarks to commemorate a local story. Heritage is also an important contributor to place identity: it is part of the process that transforms spaces into places. It’s actual and potential roles in this respect explains the involvement of place management for whom this sense of place has very real economic, social and political significance”.

SAMA is a good example to point out the importance of an enriching relationship between a museum, the local community and a global network. SAMA focuses on community building, social cohesion, urban identity issues, and the use of street art as a tool to start a dialogue between urban stakeholders. By using the methods of production of street art, the museum facilitate a knowledge exchange where all collaborators benefit from each other. Additionally, the museum’s partnerships with local universities and focus on fully registering their collection would position the institution as a leader in the movement to explore official categorization and ownership of street art.

“Producing knowledge is one of the great gifts of museums. We thought for a very long time that education was a hindrance to enjoying art, but it's not. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing people who want to know something they don't know yet open up to new experience. For example, you can learn how to make good decision from art; it's an ability we seem to have lost. The museum can show you the way”.


Street art’s function as a communication tool it to be understood within the context of its creation, and the impact of a neighborhood environment transcends decorative elements. As experimentation in eco-museum and non-traditional modes of musealisation, SAMA is both building the identity of a rapidly changing area while preserving both the memories of the neighborhood and of artistic motivations. With no definition and a wide expanse of gray area, studying the movement in its current form within a natural habitat will result in a nuanced, and dynamic method that is not confined to the realm of art. As a discipline, street art remains an accessible outlet that requires no formal training or education, and this function as an alternative art form is a non-dominant voice that grew from a non-dominant discourse. The social responsibility of a street art museum should not be solely to the preservation of the art, but also to the narratives that both developed and perpetuated the birth of the movement. Most importantly, the urban setting is crucial to understanding the goals of the street art movement as a voice given to the disenfranchised and a rebellion against dominant hegemonies.

Street art is more than decoration, and to remove it from the streets is to erase its very being.

The future of museum models would benefit from an immersive and nuanced system and we have seen a conscious moving away from patrician institutes of elite culture (Stedilijk Museum).

However, with street art currently being adopted as a commercial or marketing tool, leading to populist temples of leisure and entertainment, focus is lost on the democratic nature of the art form (NDSM Project).

With experimental, less architecturally determined, and politicized engagement forms the integrity of street art’s legacy may be better examined and understood (SAMA).


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