• Roberto Alvau

Street Art as a form of socio-urban resistance



In 1997, Sarah Giller claimed that "graffiti is a visual means of resisting the privatisation of public space", i.e. an ant-hegemonic art form able to cross bourgeois conventions and redeem itself as an instrument of social claim and critique.More precisely, urban art forms are capable of configuring themselves as instruments of resistance against the decadent classical-urban dynamics that force marginalised communities into peripheral and often degraded neighbourhoods: in this context, graffiti not only acquires a primary role as an element of aesthetic embellishment, but also as a fundamental element for the identity construction of a specific micro-community.


More precisely, urban art forms are capable of configuring themselves as instruments of resistance against the decadent classical-urban dynamics that force marginalised communities into peripheral and often degraded neighbourhoods: in this context, graffiti not only acquires a primary role as an element of aesthetic embellishment, but also as a fundamental element for the identity construction of a specific micro-community.


Street art is first and foremost an image, and as such it carries within itself a precise message addressed to a non-specific urban public that can freely receive and internalise it. It is one of the few artistic manifestations that are totally free from capitalist or mercantile limitations and because of this it has suffered a certain ostracism from institutions over the years. Municipal clean-up actions, the creation of the stereotype "graffiti = vandalism", and the relationship with the criminal community are some of the most common examples of anti-graffiti campaigns against this art form over the decades.


"Despite its ability to allow the silenced to speak, graffiti is officially considered a form of social deviance. Since the inception of graffiti, government officials and citizens alike have viewed graffiti as a disrespectful and demoralizing sign of decay. In the days when subways were the chosen sites for writers, officials believed graffiti's "ever-present markings [served] to persuade the passenger that the subway is a dangerous place." Transit Police Chief Sanford Garelik went so far as to suggest that "graffiti leads to other forms of criminality.'"

Giller, Sarah. Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape. 1997


The value of urban art is above all that of being an instrument of empowerment and identity for marginalised communities: in fact, it is not a coincidence that its birth is managed around evident ethnic and social components which, especially in Europe, have coincided with the presence of ethnic guettos, giving life to those "culturas de barrio'' where graffiti is interpreted as a voice against the dominant system. Street Art thus acts as a cultural practice and is conceived as the representation of a group, as the appropriation of a public and visually accessible space, where there are no forms of exclusion and social rejection. With its empowering ability, it becomes a means for social change and proposes new forms of identities and social cohesion.


With the power to affect social norms comes the power to create and legitimize new subjectivities, new definitions, new values, new histories, and new memories. Once this power is reached, identity can be self-determined and self-defined. For the victims of marginalization, respect and positive identity are crucial. The significance of art's power lies in its ability to allow the silenced voices to proclaim " Look! We are here! We exist! Remember us!" Clearly, art is both powerful and a means of empowering.

Giller, Sarah. Ibid. 1997




The main struggle of urban art is exactly this one: to give voice to the micro-collective systems of marginalised areas and to transform the degraded neighbourhood into a free space of acceptance and union of social connections. Many times, graffiti's critical efforts also coincide with the protest of fierce urban modernisation campaigns by municipalities, based on economic profit. Urban redevelopment, evictions, gentrification and community standardisation are just some of the main points against which urban art fights in order to defend the autonomy of the district where this art form lives and manages itself freely.


As Sarah Giller summarises: "In essence, graffiti is simultaneously a salvation and a curse because it is a complete transgression from our social structures. Traditionally excluded from economic and cultural resources, marginalised urban youth are able to use graffiti to access the power of the image. Continuous anti-graffiti laws and activity convey the success of graffiti to give the invisible the power to be seen." ( Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape, 1997)









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