How influential is street art to society?
Whenever I visit any new city, I usually look for that one neighborhood that has a unique character to it. It might not be the most visited nor the most recommended of any particular place, but it almost always has a story to tell. A story that might not be verbal. A story that might have more than one meaning; perhaps even an artistic one. It is the story of global street art scene that has captured many cities worldwide.
In traveling, I have found that often, the writing is literally on the walls. (This is irrespective of ‘writing’ being words or images.) In my opinion, the best way to gain understanding into a local culture is not only to visit it but rather to spend quality time there trying to gain a deeper appreciation and grasp on the societal situation of that place. Without seeking that as a traveler, you are often just scratching off places as you visit them and missing at least part of the bigger picture.
When visiting the San Francisco area, or Bay Area, recently, one of the neighborhoods that I had in my mind was the Mission District. A friend asked me upon arriving why I didn’t want to just see Downtown San Francisco or the Golden Gate Bridge. I responded, that I definitely did and would, I just wanted to experience some of the other areas of the city that fewer outsiders venture to. In my experience, that has always been the best way to truly experience a city: that is, to see more than one side of it. Though, this article is not holistically about the Mission District of San Francisco, there will be lots of pictures, directions to, and some general thoughts on it later in the article. I decided after walking around the neighborhood a good bit and reading a little on the history I had other reflections about the influence and role that street art has on a broader scale, which led me to this.
In a recent article about the street art of Montreal Canada, I alluded to the fact that there is a certain international-ness to street art and graffiti. It really has become almost a global sub-culture in and of itself. Although sometimes murals are painted just for the sake of art, more often than not there is a message or theme involved.
When a friend was visiting me in while I was living in Puerto Rico, we went for a walk through a neighborhood called Santurce, which is covered in street art. As we passed some of the spectacular art work there, my friend casually looked on and said, “There are a lot of talented people here with no opportunities. It leads to frustrations.” Whether that’s exactly true or not of that particular situation, it gives you an idea of the depth that visual arts have when presented in a public forum. The arts can give new life to a neighborhood and a voice to those who don’t have one. This has been a clear theme in the countries that I have visited as well as in things I’ve read. Take the case of Kenya for example. I met a political graffiti-ist some years ago and he was telling me about the street art related movement going on in Nairobi at that time for the elections. Whether they affected the outcome greatly or not, they certainly drew enough attention from major firms such as BBC and AlJazeera.
I’ve consistently noticed in the places that I have visited how effective the arts can be in conveying a message. Even simple phrases written can be significant to a passerby. This is something I have noticed in many of the places that I have visited such as Spain, Morocco, Canada, Puerto Rico, and even my current location of New York City among other places. Messages are not always politically charged as was the case in the reference to Kenya. In Spain, I came across an area in Cordoba filled by love poetry. It was interesting reading the many different perspectives on passion. I have also found that street art can be related to local cultural pride and even by a sense of belonging to a particular neighborhood in other areas such as Puerto Rico. Particularly in works like this in San Juan, or many of the others that mix the island’s diverse cultural and heritage legacy with the current socio-economic issues that plague the island. Comparatively in Spain, I came across many instances where I can say that the writing was somewhat indicative of a least a percentage of the local people’s everyday life and perspective. After spending time in Spain on that trip, I recapped it all in an article about the conditions I saw.
Worth mentioning in this article is another interesting combination of street art and objects are some of the things going on in Detroit. One of which I saw, was the Heidelberg Project. I have a few pictures and some commentary about it in my article Is Detroit that Bad?. Even though, I wouldn’t say that I saw a lot of street art in Detroit with respect to the context of this article, but I saw a lot of things that could be considered art and was on the street. By default, perhaps just another form of street art? Detroit is a city that has been through a lot over the years. Many of this is evident when you visit there.
Truthfully, the beauty of street art is in the fact that it is art. Like all things, the interpretation is up to the viewer. That’s what can be so great about it. Street art can emit such an array of senses, as we have seen ranging from the political to socio-economic (tribute to the many women who stood for gender equality and change), to the cultural and even comedic. In the past I have seen various forms of the many common human emotions such as contentment, desire, disappointment, despair, greed, happiness, hope, joy, love, lust, pleasure, pride, sadness, sorrow, wonder, and zest expressed and portrayed in art and/or street words. Street art as an objective piece can be thought-provoking instrument. It can be a reminder for self-betterment and improvement; it can reveal emotions and sentiments that most can relate to; it can be a historical reminder, a positive note, or just a source of entertainment to the viewer.
Mission District San Francisco
The history of the Mission District is an interesting one and one that relates to many of the immigrants who have come to the United States over the years. Being that it is one of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods, it is one that retains a lot of character and history, at least from what I saw while visiting.
As in the artwork that you will see on the street, the artistic development of the neighborhood relates a lot to the Chicano Art Movement and identifies histories, equality/inequality, political condemnation, racism, cultural heritage and more. For those readers who may not know, the term ‘chicano‘ is a slang term for a Mexican-American. Although this refers to a specific group, many of the depictions represent common human struggles that many across the world tragically face daily. It is artwork like this that gives rise to the ‘voice’ and identity that I’ve been talking about in this article in its own way.
I’ll let some of the street art pictures from the Mission District tell their own story.
I also noticed some street art related to the gentrification that is going on in the neighborhood. It is a theme that I am all to familiar with in Brooklyn as similar things are taking place.
Where is the street art in the Mission District of San Francisco?
I didn’t find it difficult to find street art in the Mission District. Walking down Van Ness Avenue, Valencia Street, and Mission Street I would find art sporadically. The highest concentrations of street art were of course those that are famous for the art projects that have taken place there namely Clarion Alley and Balmy Alley. Balmy is easy to find. It is boxed in by 24th and 25th Streets to the north and south respectively and Treat Avenue and Harrison Street to the east and west. For referencing, Treat Avenue is only a short three block walk from Van Ness Avenue. Clarion Alley is between Mission Street and Valencia street just north of 18th. For other areas with street art, I would recommend walking around the lower Mission District area below 21st and above 25th. There may also be some other areas in the Mission District with nice street art, but I didn’t get to spend enough time in the area to explore them all. If you have been and know of some others, please leave them in the comments section below.
Street art might not be loved and appreciated by all. It might not appeal to every generation. Some graffiti and street art might even be considered to be ‘better’ than others. However, one thing doesn’t change: what another’s artwork means to you.
Just a few years ago, I didn’t really have much appreciation for street art. Partly because I hadn’t seen great works before, but also because it was so taboo. Now, although I don’t particularly like every piece that I see, I have an appreciation for the background and role that street art can play in a society. I’m curious: am I alone in this? Or do you have similar thoughts? What are some of the more influential/controversial/memorable street art scenes that you have seen? Were they creative? Did they have political biases or were they thought-provoking?
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