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Does Graffiti Make or Break Communities?

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By Shazeen, UK

Being born and bred in Birmingham, I experienced both a sheltered and an adventurous life. When you hear about being sheltered, you immediately could think of a person not being outgoing. This was not true in my case. I was always an outgoing person. If I was caught in a web of an unfamiliar situation or place, I was rejuvenated and overcome by a desire to explore and draw new compasses on my internal map. I always felt that in getting lost do we not only find our way out again, but we find out about things we did not anticipate.

My sheltered life was brought into light in such instances as strolling through the least desired streets of my city. They are not dangerous, and are in fact a playground of factories, local businesses, art hubs, entrepreneurs’ creative spaces, coffee houses, bars, restaurants, pubs, and a nearby college.

Regardless of these representations of a growing city, I saw streets consumed by graffiti art on walls, litter scattered everywhere as though nobody cares, dustbins shoved against brick walls and fences of every corner, broken windows of a select few abandoned buildings, and what appears like a gloomy part of Birmingham.

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The onset of walking through these streets makes them appear neglected. I always saw the graffiti on walls as people illegally vandalizing other people’s property. I grew up seeing people, on my way home from school, spraying art work and writing on the walls and walking away as if they didn’t do it. Before I started appreciating street art, I was reconstructing these streets in my mind to imagine them being absent of neglect, hate, crime, aggression, intrusion, and ignorance.

But I was wrong on many levels. Graffiti is not a connotation of crime. It is still true that gang-graffiti is common wherever you go and whichever time in the last few decades you revisit. More often than not, they convey rebelliousness, a statement of illegally owning a particular turf, or a form of threat.

Ideological graffiti became rapid at some point in time, especially within areas where people had a common tie and familiarity.

There are other forms of graffiti – some of which are not intended to be artwork, and others that are purely for spontaneity.

Many graffiti artists, as many as among those who are not serious, take their creativity seriously. They are frustrated by the misconception of graffiti being associated with only the corruption of society through the culture of gangsters and thugs who want to leave their mark across cities in a careless manner.

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While this is true for those who do it, art on the streets can be a public expression, which not only channels out the artist’s inner-thoughts and perception of the ‘self’, but highlights the beauty of a broken, abandoned street wall or building. It restores life on these streets and reflects a culture of unspoken talent and opportunities. In every street corner of my graffiti tour, I was thrilled by colours contrasting against the old bridges I was walking under, and the tiny abandoned buildings rented out as studios for music producers and other local talent.

The City of Colours is an annual festival held in Birmingham every year to showcase talent nationally and internationally. Artists visit from around the world for the sole purpose of publicly expressing their art, whether they want to illustrate their perceptions for the pleasure of viewers, or bringing attention to their credibility as a business. I think this is what it means to make a mark on the streets. Sometimes, the same tool that is used to corrupt streets and segregate communities is the same tool to own the streets again by portraying the human narrative. This annual festival connects artists from different mediums and backgrounds to unite under one space – The Custard Factory and surrounding streets, to make their mark and invite others to appreciate it and try it too.

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My tourist explained the amount of work that goes into making this a possibility, but he joyfully says, “it’s all worth it. It pays off.” Inquisitively, I exchanged thoughts with him about the potential to bring a new light of graffiti in the city of Birmingham. He spoke about the reduction of gang-graffiti on these streets ever since more artists with real intentions of perceiving and sharing art are taking over and making their mark. The more they do this, the more those prone to vandalizing streets are seeking permission before drawing art. It makes art on the streets a little bit more meaningful, and fun. It brings communities together instead of drawing them apart.

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Although I understand that an appearance of graffiti across a particular segment of a city invites attention of people who will not offer anything positive, the fact that these streets comprise of a growing number of hubs for artistic talent, entrepreneurship, design, and opportunities can make someone think twice before deciding it’s a dumping ground for neglectful behavior. We can start looking at art as a way of beautifying and empowering our local areas instead of overpowering it with messages of aggression, intrusion, and hate. You are welcome to this area with your artwork, but have an idea, have something to express, have a desire to convey your perceptions, and connect with the local talent and entrepreneurial hub.

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2 comments to “Does Graffiti Make or Break Communities?”

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  1. mrdancohen says: March 23, 2016 at 21:40

    Lovely piece. I used to think about graff a lot. Never understood why the back of a stop sign should belong to the state when it does nothing to enforce a law. I get that it keeps property value higher, technically, and I understand the marking and crime concept, but I always found street art fascinating. In Venice Beach, large public walls make for dedicated spaces for graff.

    Big fan of it overall. If you’re ever curious to red a great graff art-inspired poet, check out Buford Youthward.

    • The People's Playground says: March 25, 2016 at 04:44

      Thank you, mrdancohen 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoy graff art as well. One of few inspirations to write this piece was my search for Bansky (I was semi-serious, and curiously joking for the rest of the time), to go out and look at various locations of my country where graffiti art is a thing. I had covered only Birmingham city but I’m going to keep a look out for graff art during my expeditions of other cities. This year is definitely one of exploration on my home grounds if not quite out there in the big wide world, although I aim to travel to a few countries.

      I think it depends on the vicinity and the nature of it’s lifestyle, culture, and societal guidelines. For example, graff art is a thing in war-struck vicinities because people turn to it as a medium of expression. This is among their loudest forms of expression, and a lot of what they produce is meaningful and interpretive. Yet my friend in Turkey spoke to me about her distress and anger towards graff art all over walls and fences because of a lack of regulated rules and guidelines. It’s not a war-torn vicinity that she resides in but there’s a lack of control in other aspects. So graff art might be interpreted as the fuel that ignites this issue according to some residents. I, on the other hand, welcome it as murals in my vicinity by encouraging festivals like City of Colours to bring out local and global talent.

      I’ll take a look into Buford Youthward’s works.

      – Shazeen

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