Since the 80’ bigger and smaller towns in Finland have been invaded by a generation who make and use graffiti. As a result various kinds of graffiti, stickers and wall paintings have become a permanent part of urban space. The urban generation has adjusted to public space in a different way than the previous ones. For the young the city is a place for meetings and leisure, they don’t attend it just for business or shopping as their elders.
This raises naturally many political and ethical questions. What concerns me here as an art theoretician is an aesthetic problem: how to evaluate the graffiti and wall paintings from artistic point of view – and can the anonymous art of the streets truly be called as art?
First, the graffiti belongs to the younger generation’s culture. The decorations on the walls are part of their mutual communication and interaction. They carry different messages like joy, happiness and maybe also political messages. Young peoples’ specific groups and clans can read and evaluate them.
This is not, however, easy for the rest of us, who are not members of these groups. And yet, all of us must face the graffiti. We cannot keep away from them, as the street art is part of the public space.
To begin with I would like to consider a positive case of temporary wall painting that has saved the environment. A recent example of this was art students’ project to decorate the ruins of a burnt building in Helsinki Tokoinranta in 2009. The building burned by a pyromaniac was located not far from the city center in a popular park and it was waiting for the demolition and construction of a new house. In the meantime the students of the Academy of Fine Arts got an opportunity to make temporary wall paintings on it. I would like to state that this project that transformed the burned building as art saved the environment. Without the wall painting project the building or what was left of it would have turned as a site of unbearable mess of illegal graffiti and scribble.
Thus in the case of murals and other wall paintings the evaluation of street art raises no aesthetic problem. These can be appreciated in a traditional way as pictorial art. There is indeed a long tradition of fresco art and murals from the Mexican murals to the wall paintings in Californian and central European cities.
The above-mentioned wall paintings in Helsinki were legal but prepared by anonymous painters. Anonymity belongs characteristically to the street art. The painters hide their names or use nicknames. This raises another problem for aesthetic evaluation: namely can we call the art of an unknown or anonymous painter as art? In other words: if a piece does not have maker, can it be called a work of art?
To answer this I would like to refer to Walter Benjamin’s thought. According to Benjamin modern people consume architecture with an absent-minded way. All inhabitants in urban surroundings are attending the built environment with a more or less conscious attention. We build opinions of it, and we keep evaluating it whether we know the names of the architects or not. Thus we take the city as a whole as an anonymous work of art, which keeps changing; it rebuilds and deteriorates itself ceaselessly. The anonymous wall paintings as well as the drawings and graffiti can be regarded as a part of the city as one piece of art.
I have the habit of traveling a lot and often times I am somewhat absent minded, but my absent mindedness is far from indifference. Sometimes I stop to observe the city as a work of art in a similar way as I look paintings in a gallery. San Francisco Mission region for instance has offered many opportunities for this. There the narrow streets between the houses have been covered with pictures painted side by side.
In Vienna the banks of the river Donau all covered by paintings and graffiti drew my attention. They were a kind of a stage of street art. In addition to many skillful and artistic paintings there were messy graffiti and ugly scribbles. And yet the graffiti of the Donau strand boulevard and a skyscraper of a broadcasting company above them formed a surprising street art experience. The high rise was temporarily covered by a tarpauling that had a huge flower patterned painting on it.
The skyscraper looked like a giant lily that rose from the underbrush of graffiti down on the riverbanks. I don’t know whether this was mere change but the effect matched well with the image of the city to which belong such artists as Gustaf Klimt, Egon Schiele and Hundertwasser. These are the artists that the tourists come to see to the city. For a moment I could see a glimpse or a reflection of the styles of these well-known artists in the anonymous street art of the city. There is no reason to object the street art of Vienna. It gave a human face to this bombastic capital of the ex-imperium of Austria-Hungary.
The photos are from The Mission District, San Francisco and from Vienna 2009
See also writer’s previously published article on Californian fresco paintings and Murals in Mustekala.