Street Art

‘We seek aesthetic pleasure for our senses and to breathe in the majesty and wonder of the given world, its soul. This we feel nourishes our soul.’

James Hillman

In the absence of sufficient nature, what happens if we come to feel malnourished? What if our souls are starving? Is graffiti a natural reaction? Aesthetics are important to us. We make some sort of choice of how we arrange our food on a plate, of what clothes we wear, and how we want our hair. We often change the car we drive because of how it looks. We also admire the creative process and are replenished by its results.

If we cannot get to a green space or close to the ocean, we search for alternative encounters with beauty. We go in search of art.

 ‘You have to put into practice the concept that man has a right to beauty. It makes people’s lives better.’ Oscar Niemeyer ( 2004)

However, architectural history portrays a change in our primary objectives. Beautifully designed buildings daubed with sculpted cherubs, gargoyle and well-proportioned naked human forms, left to us by bygone eras tend to remain untouched by graffiti. Some cities have more examples of this than others. These cities make us feel different. We accept that Paris, Florence and Rome are romantic places. It may be beauty, it may be art or it could well be the breast shaped domes and the phallic spires. Whatever it is, we appreciate it and it brings out the finer qualities of being.

‘Buildings speak, and in order to say something helpful and interesting, they need to be given freedom of speech, of the sort that most modern architectural theory does not allow.’ (Moore 1986)After thousands of years of undiluted art, the industrial revolution encouraged function to the forefront of design. In most areas of the UK the cost of a plot far exceeds the cost of the build, consequently the project is focused on paying for the land and getting the building to do what it’s meant to.

‘So developers plan their art budgets, as the last step in construction, for some wall art and some landscape art and maybe even a monumental sculpture to be added on at the end when the whole project is in place. As the budget estimate usually doesn’t cover actual costs, the add-on art is then topped off.’ (Hillman 2006)

Art is not economical, but it may be essential. The economy we have insisted on is a false one. If all costs were considered we may plan more shrewdly.

Our buildings are not perceived with the importance that they held in the past. We rarely dream up projects that will take a long time and a lot of effort. If this had always been the case, there would be no pyramids, no Taj Mahal and no St Paul’s Cathedral. King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge, took over a hundred years to build. Can you imagine anyone starting a project like that today?Buildings without art are a missed opportunity – a tabula rasa. The collective calling for art has various outcomes. Without beautiful images, we hunger for substitutes, bill boards even, and graffiti.

In the New World, America, Canada, Australia, where artistic architecture from a glorious past is absent, planners appear more ready to allow large advertising hoardings. Roadsides become littered with capitalist ‘art.’ It is accepted, capitalist art is better than none.

All over the world it is the plainest walls that are targeted by graffiti artists. Something rises from the collective to feed its need.

 ‘In the absence of aesthetic nourishment, the emotional part of the brain is left to seek fulfilment by indulgence in desires.’ (Day 2006)

James Hillman describes artists as ‘barking guardians of immediate un-anaesthetized noticing . . . Artists are not those who have taste, but those who do taste . . .’ They are the individuals most able to sense what goes on . . .that person on whom popular democracy depends.’ (Hillman 2006)

Once considered an eye sore, and as we are infested with more and more blank walls, the collective reaction to graffiti has changed. The better street artists are no longer blamed for destroying neighbourhoods; instead they are praised for improving them.

In some areas of London, where Banksy’s work decorates plain walls, house prices have actually risen because of it. An organic process has risen up from the streets, answering the collective call for art; Graffiti is the art of the people, for the people.Graffiti artists like Banksy and Blek Le Rat have now become eminent figures in the world of fine art. Collectors recognise the genuine nature of their work and pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for it. This art from the streets has a voice, a political energy we cannot fail to notice.

The authorities are still divided on what approach to take. Bristol City Council had to decide whether or not to grant Banksy retrospective planning permission for a piece of wall art. The council consulted public opinion via their website and found that 93% of people wanted the art to stay. (Martin 2008)

‘Its always easier to get forgiveness than permission.’ (Banksy 2005)

Wall art is becoming more popular all over the world. In some cases the owners of city buildings have approached artists to paint their walls. In Philadelphia authorities now commission artists to paint gigantic murals on the plain walls of silent towers. And the artists are happy for their art to be in the world, rather than confined to a gallery, as more people get to enjoy its beauty. The practice has been so well received that it is being copied in other American cities.

Despite this, most artists still work illegally, but there is an interesting moral code. One London artist, Cyclops, describes his targets: ‘I would never paint someone’s car or an old cottage, but when it comes to factories or commercial property, I don’t really care or have any feelings.’ (Martin 2008)

Last week The Times reported on ‘Europe’s largest street art project.’ In a project entitled ‘See No Evil,’ Bristol Council is paying £80 000 for the painting of Nelson Street. The project is being co-ordinated by graffiti artist, Tom Bingle, AKA Inkie, who describes Nelson Street as a ‘concrete jungle, an area of drab greyness, to which we want to add a massive splash of colour.’


Even the best graffiti is still seen as a crime by some, but many seem to be recognising that it is better to have it in our lives than no art at all.

In some areas we demand it, even where our laws forbid it.