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Over the last two decades, street art has become an integral part of the urban landscape. While this might seem natural to contemporary readers, it is in fact a remarkable change, given that the history of street art is linked to the criminality and vandalism of graffiti culture. Indeed, many cities around the world now hold street art festivals, signalling the location-based nature of the art form and reflecting its concern with contemporary social issues.
Although all art attempts to communicate, a unique feature of street art is the immediacy of the communication within urban landscapes – not locked away in galleries. One prominent example is Australian female street artist, Kaff-eine, who has an increasing global footprint through her artwork that raises awareness around issues of poverty and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Background: from vandalism to ‘post-graffiti’ art
Historically, negative portrayals of street art emerged by connecting graffiti to vandalism. Yet especially through artists such as Banksy, street art has moved from the category of vandalism to a highly prized art form and an exciting part of many urban environments.
Street art is described as “post graffiti” because it has evolved from the modern-day graffiti movement. There are, of course, similarities between the two art forms – e.g. its use of the urban landscape as canvas, and the subversive style of imagery. However, while graffiti is text-based, restricted to a spray can, and often linked to territorial gang politics, street art expands the practice to include multiple media (e.g. stencilling, paste ups, murals and sculptures) and also speaks to a much wider audience.
Re-shaping our cities and urban experiences
Street art frequently tells a story by commenting on current events. Street artists use the urban environment to engage audiences by creating disruptions of thought in the everyday. This creates ‘conversations’ between the artist, the artwork and their audience, thereby prompting wider social and cultural conversations.
As researcher Anna Waclawek suggests, “Street art aids in the creation of city spaces by occupying a physical location in the cityscape and by engaging people in the experience of art”. But this experience is not limited to the aesthetic: it also creates dialogue and interactions between the artist and the viewer around contemporary issues.
Social media further facilitates such conversations. For example, street artist Scott Marsh’s 2016 portrait of the then NSW Premier, Mike Baird, clearly made a statement of what the artist sees as the hypocrisy within the government about the Sydney lockout laws. Conversations about these laws and Mike Baird reverberated throughout social media, highlighting the ability of street art to spark important conversations.
The subcultures of graffiti and street art have a history of being male dominated due to the nature of the artform: a past link with street gangs, its history of being illegal, and the dangers often involved in producing artworks in dangerous places such as the side of trains. Despite this, female involvement within the subculture continues to rise. One female artist with a growing profile is the aforementioned Kaff-eine.
Kaff-eine, a lawyer turned artist, uses her art to create awareness around marginalised communities including those living in poverty and LGBTQIA+ groups. Kaff-eine has also used street art to highlight suffering, poverty and violence in the slums of Manila, Philippines, through an organisation called Cheeseagle. This collective used their art form as a tool to begin conversations and discussions around the social impact of slum-dwellers in these areas. Kaff-eine’s intervention was both artistic and practical, painting portraits of local residents on tarpaulins – altering and beautifying the local physical environment, by providing the community with the repurposed ‘artwork tarps’ that could be used as shelter by residents.
Another project was Inspiring locals. Kaff-eine selected the co-founder of Wear it purple, Katherine Hudson, to create a mural in Bondi Junction, Sydney. Wear it purple is an initiative that supports diversity and social equality for those within the rainbow communities.
In Kaff-eine’s latest piece for the 2018 Darwin Street Art festival, we can start to unpack the artform and how it can be used to create awareness. Kaff-eine selected model Shaniquá, a transgender woman from the Tiwi Islands for this piece. This mural is a way of talking about issues that are in current debate within our society and showcasing the importance of doing this.
Through Kaff-eine’s selected choice of projects and imagery, the audience is challenged to reflect on these issues. Street art is more than just an aesthetic intervention into our urban landscape: it is also about engaging in conversations in the public sphere.
The power and potential of street art
These examples clearly show the power of street art as a contemporary medium, and also show its potential as a way of instigating important social conversations.
As research has shown, street art leaves audiences thinking about imagery, engaging in discussions and forming opinions – all in ways that happen outside the context of art galleries. So, next time you encounter street art in the urban landscape, take a moment to reflect on the way it may interrupt your thoughts.
Alix Beattie is a Western Sydney University PhD Candidate researching street art and graffiti with a focus on female artists and how audiences interact and engage with the art forms.