Save the environment_Bogota_2015_PhotoDavidMaddox(feature).jpgArts-Policy 

The Nature of Graffiti

By David Maddox

Nature is all around us. Plants, animals, soil, air and water inhabit and animate our daily lives, whether you live in the country or in the city. We are invigorated by nature’s beauty and inspired by its creatures and how they connect to our own lives. We long, consciously or not, for connection to nature. Nature can represent metaphors for a “good life,” or for health, but also danger, “the wild,” and the undomesticated. Animals have personality, and images of them can convey ideas and emotions beyond their physical selves. There are social ideas and controversies around the environment that inspire heated debate on conservation, climate change, and justice.

It’s no surprise, then, that nature is ubiquitous in art, from formal “indoor art” to outdoor murals and graffiti. These last two forms are the subject of a new collection of images and discussion curated by The Nature of Cities: “Up Against the Wall: A Gallery of Nature-Themed Graffiti and Street Art,” which we intend to be an evolving, crowd-sourced collection—a source of ideas, agitation, and inspiration for creative place-making that is beyond the formal and sanctioned. We hope this will be a place where both artists and communities can talk about the connection between people and nature in outdoor art, a convening space where we can explore the meaning of graffiti and the nature of public space and creative place-making.

Graffiti has a multifaceted and sometimes controversial place in the urban landscape. Some say:

Graffiti reflects underlying decay and lawlessness, and is a menace to social order.

Others say:

Graffiti fulfills many important social functions, including making social commentary, claiming on space, and creating interesting public places.

There is truth in both views. Indeed, graffiti is one of the few truly spontaneous elements in many urban landscapes.

Graffiti, revered and loathed by turns, provides insights into societal attitudes and perceptions. Whether for protest, art, or comment, as a sometimes (but not always) illegal activity, graffiti can confront hegemony, saying what those in power don’t want to hear, or what isn’t part of the “mainstream” dialogue. But sometimes it can support hegemony; for example, in the 1980s in Brazil and Argentina, politicians paid local youth to paint covert and manipulative political slogans. Paul Downton was inspired, while walking in a park, by a corporate advertisement masquerading as stenciled graffiti to write an essay about how public space can be covertly co-opted.

These are the facts of graffiti and street art, and they bring out some of their many dualities: decay vs. renewal; illegal vs. legal; ugly vs. beautiful; innovative vs. crass; overt vs. covert; inside vs. outside.

So what is graffiti and street art saying? What can it say? Some people view it as “out of place,” deviant, symbolizing disorder and moral panic. On the other hand, as art that is created and experienced in public spaces, graffiti and street art can be used to assert a claim to a particular place, in a sense create it—a territorial marker for the artist and all those they aim to represent. Graffiti also blurs the boundaries between private space (the buildings it is often painted on) and public (the visibility of graffiti from public places). At its best, graffiti can challenge dominant discourse and politics and communicate alternative, disruptive meaning. Street art, graffiti’s somewhat more formal cousin, can serve similar roles in creative place-making, especially when such art is inspired and commissioned by and for local communities.

Nature-themed graffiti may relate to many issues in society, such as: (1) how we define and understand nature (e.g., a rural or agrarian ideal, wilderness); (2) political statements of all kinds, including but not limited to those addressing conservation or the environment; (3) comments on what is missing or needed in the city; (4) simple depictions of beauty; and (5) use of nature elements as tags or as messages that don’t involve the environment.

Pippen Anderson sowed the seed for The Nature of Graffiti collection in her essay on nature-themed graffiti in Cape Town. It turns out that there is a lot of graffiti and street art around the world that includes elements of nature. Examples illustrate stories and purposes that are rich, diverse, illuminating, and provocative.

Santa Teresa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Peg Malloy)

In the gallery, you can find pictures of nature’s place in our urban world, messages about environmental protection and images of cities as counter to a rural idyll. See, for example, the large mural in Barrio 13 in Medellín, Colombia—near the famous escalators that help people navigate the steep hillside community—depicting a scene of rural idyll. Perhaps these are offered in contrast to a difficult urban existence. There are scenes of mystery and beauty on dismal walls needing the remediation that natural images can provide, and evocative graffiti of plants growing out of a woman’s head in Cape Town, and a man in a suit with a deer’s head in Medellín. Who knows what the penguin in the life preserver is doing in Rio de Janeiro? Perhaps she is preparing to be cast out to sea after her ice floe melts into an ocean that is warming around her.

Barrio 13 community mural in Medellín, Colombia. (David Maddox)

There are calls to action, including for conservation causes and environmental controversies, but also scenes memorializing victims of violence. There are statements of concern about the corporate role in environmental degradation and food security (for example, “Monsanto Mata,” or “Monsanto kills,” in a fancy downtown Buenos Aires park), or complaints about the obscure politics of environmentally and socially destructive infrastructure.

One such image refers to a large and controversial dam—the Belo Monte dam—on a tributary of the Amazon River that has destroyed forest, displaced indigenous people, and only produced a modest, less-than-promised amount of hydropower (“Belo Monte de Mentiras”).

“Belo Monte Lies” in Altamira, Brazil. (David Maddox)

Among community-commissioned murals there are statements of what the community values. For example, in Portland, Mike Houck commissioned the largest community mural in North America: over 55,000 square feet depicting an array of local birds.

55,000 square foot mural in Portland. (Mike Houck)

Often, nature images are used to make points unrelated to the environment. Or perhaps they are just part of the artist’s tag image. Or both. For example, a well-known and influential graffiti artist, Tripido, was murdered by the police in Bogotá in 2015. A policeman is now serving jail time, with others under investigation. Tripido’s tag was a Felix the Cat. You can see many memorials to him—Felix the Cats—around Bogotá.

A memorial to Tripido in Bogotá, Colombia. (Germán Eliecer Gomez)

This is the nature of graffiti. It facilitates speech. It speaks to us. It stakes claims and makes statements. It tells stories.

We ought to listen to people about their perceptions and views on nature in cities, to better promote the idea and value of nature in cities. In that rich vein, what does this graffiti tell us? It tells us there are voices of dissent out there, personal views not always captured by popular media or acted on by city managers or private developers. It tells us that that there are non-standard urban forms, and a desire for more nature, both in cities and beyond cities. It tells us that in even the most overwhelmingly urban environments, human beings are determined to find a way to express our connection with the rest of the living world. There’s a desire to tell personal stories as a form of creative and alternative place-making. Among all the individual stories embedded in these examples of graffiti and street start, there are larger, synthetic stories about society.

By gathering examples of such graffiti in cities globally, we aim to facilitate exploration of some interesting questions: What are examples of urban nature-themed graffiti around the world? What does it tell us about the nature of and in cities? What might stories we find in graffiti art tell us about urban—and rural—stories? How are people using nature to claim public spaces?

It raises policy questions that speak to one of the dualities that I mentioned earlier: legal vs. illegal. In many cities graffiti is associated with decay and lawlessness—think New York City in the 1970. But a number of cities around the world have found a way to make graffiti legal, within limits, and also nurture vibrant community mural programs. Some of these are very hard-hitting, for example with themes of political violence. One of the key characteristics of graffiti and street art is that its creation lies closer to where people live and their daily lives—often closer to the large public art projects commissioned by municipal governments and sanctioned committees.

As cities continue to explore the exciting frontiers of creative and participatory place-making—the rights of people to envision and create their own city—we would do well to look to places like Bogotá and Medellín and ask how they integrate outside art, community murals, and formal city planning. Answers to this may yield some thrilling possibilities for community-driven city-building.



David Maddox is the founder and Executive Director of The Nature of Cities, a collective discussion site on cities as ecosystems. He is also a composer, lyricist and theatre artist.

[Photo courtesy of David Maddox]

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