“Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage”
Robert MacFarlane, a Road of One’s Own
In July 2015, I received a grant from the Academy of Urbanism to explore street messages and creative placemaking within rapidly changing urban spaces. Broadly, my research has explored the encounter with artistic interventions within the urban environment and how they interact with our everyday lives. Within this project more specifically I wanted to go to the encounter of urban street art in four neighbourhoods of London which were all going through processes of change: Brixton, Peckham, Brockley & Shoreditch. This sought to do three things:
- Collect images to refer back to and see if themes would become apparent,
- Create a working definition of creative place making in terms of street art, and,
- Understand where street art fits into narratives of rapidly changing spaces.
What is urban street art and/or street messages?
I was about half way through the project that I stopped referring to the art I was encountering in the street as urban street art, but as street messages. I was rather confusingly for others, and myself, either interchangeably using the words or just saying street messages.
Street art is, basically, art in the street.
But, the reason why I decide to move away from calling it street art is because it did not encompass everything I began to encounter in the street. I wanted it to include, yes, what we understand as street art, but also graffiti (from the italian graffiare, to scratch), tagging (writing one’s name or symbol), feel good stuff, retorts, hactivism (to distort the original meaning of something, like road signs, to create new meaning), calligraffiti, portrait pieces, community murals, inspirational quotes, etc.
I’m personally, drawn to seeking out what seems to be the more impulsive act of grabbing a pen or a spray can and writing on the walls or surfaces. It comes from an individualistic desire but connects to others because it comes from a personal place, connecting empathically.
I guess the difference I am trying to make here is that there were some encounters with street art or street messages that can be immediately understood. You do not have to go away and do some research to understand what that particular piece is trying to do, and you do not need to be in the street art or graffiti world to understand it. I understand it because the message is clear, and I connect to it as a person.
Providing context to the images changes how we engage with it, and therefore how we respond to it. This came up during various points of the project. Because the project was taking place in the street and at the point of encounter with urban street art, I could not assume that people who pass by it go or would go home to research. I wanted to understand their view of the art as they saw and understood it in the very real here and now.
What about the process?
Walking & Filming
Over the months of July & August I set out on a series of walks with different people. I don’t know how you experience the city, but I’ve walked a lot across it. Walking is something that I think in a place like London that is so busy and stressful and where we all lead these very full lives, slowing down is not something that comes quite as naturally anymore. So part of what I wanted to do to understand different areas was to go out there and get a bit – well – lost. And it was in that process of unknowing, the destination, the people we would meet, the conversations that we would have, without having an agenda, which proved to be very exciting. By slowing down, we were able to tap into the pulse of the place, and at the same time open ourselves up to encounter.
During the course of the project I was lucky to meet Jayni Gudka, a filmmaker who wanted to do a short film around the experience of the project. Creating a film was never something I thought of doing, but is a really lovely way to showcase what and how the project was undertaken.
Neighbourhoods & Talking to People.
London is a constantly changing city, but Brixton, Peckham, Brockley & Shoreditch were interesting in the way street art was framed in each context – part of it’s identity, sometimes to raise awareness, part of regeneration projects, and sometimes to argue the appropriation and use of space. When I was doing my background research on the areas, all had the word gentrification as part of their descriptions, and I wanted to explore how street art and messages fit within those processes.
It was during these walks that I had young urbanists, urban planners, academics, artists, photographers, a filmmaker, strangers, coerced friends, an accountant, an art psychotherapist, a wide range of people that responded to the call out for walkers. I was never lonely on my walks. This response I think is indicative of how many people connected to the project aims.
Photography & Mapping.
I wanted to incorporate an element of mapping into the process. While walking in an area, I would take pictures and locate these images onto a map. By creating a virtual map that could be referred to, I wanted to see what themes would immediately jump out.
There were several problematics with this though. Firstly, I realised that I was taking pictures very much from my lived experience, what was making ME stop and making ME think and making ME want to take a picture – it could have been a different interpretation by someone else. Lesson learnt, I need to involve more people at this stage. Secondly, these pictures are not exhaustive and I have simply taken into account a tiny percentage of what’s out there.
As the walks came to a close and I now wanted to understand the outcomes of it, I organised a workshop to answer some of the aims I had initially set out with. It was also really important involve others in this process, as I wanted to dilute my interpretation of things from my own experience – and a wide range of people were invited to take part. As a group we set about figuring out themes. This involved using the same map you can see over there, and placing images that were taken on the walks around it. By first separating them into neighbourhoods, and then into categories, themes began to emerge.
Over the course of the walks, and during a workshop that took place back in September, themes started to become apparent. Such as:
- Against the system/Critiques of Technology.
- Instructions & Street Philosophy.
- Aesthetic – images that possibly needed more of a context and background to them to undertand.
But what do these themes mean in the context of these neighbourhoods?
Brixton is a bustling area, a transportation and market hub. It’s very diverse. It’s also rapidly changing. Earlier this year, network rail began evicting some 30 local independent businesses from within the arches running along Atlantic Road and Station Road, some of which have been in the area for around 40 years. Together with the market, they constitute what is largely considered the heart of Brixton.
The Save the Arches petition began as a response to that, and part of it was also a movement started by local street artist PINS. Initially contacted by a local business to paint their shutters in response to the eviction, PINS then contacted some of his artist friends, spoke to other businesses, and organised more shutters to be painted, helping to raise awareness of the situation. This image is now iconic of the struggle happening in Brixton.
Walking around Brixton was a lot of fun and we met and spoke to many people. The importance of community – through the Save Brixton Arches Campaign shutters, but also to the responses around them – the writings I miss my Brixton, F*%& your new flats, and others – were indicative of feelings around the changes taking place in the area.
We met Phil, Amara & Aleksi from Small World Urbanism, an organisation that uses gardening and art with a community focus. On the day we were walking they were painting bees and planting on beehive place – this small oasis of plants and animals in an urban environment felt like a haven, particularly against the new Brixton Pop structure. Lining the walls were also portraits by James Pearson, an Australian artist who had done the portraits of characters of this particular stretch. We met a few of them, particularly John who spent a long time telling us about growing up in Brixton, the businesses lining the road. There was a great energy about the place, people stopping and chatting and adding their own thoughts to the changes in Brixton.
I don’t really know Peckham. Before the walks, I’d been there once or twice over the last couple of years. Coming out of the station, you’re fed out of small tunnels and into a bustling high street of stalls piled high with yam and cassava, fishmongers and butchers, and music blasting in the street. Peckham is one of the most diverse communities in London, which also plays home to many of its best art schools. It is an area that’s undergone changes in the last few years, with the influx of cafes, wine bars, niche shops and artists studios. One of my favourite pieces that we came across during those walks was a David de Brito (São Paolo) painting that originally read “I love Peckham” and where someone had come by and written over it – I hate the new Peckham.
Just off Rye Lane, walking past vegetable stalls, you come into a parking area with lots of cars, a restaurant, and a lot of graffiti, tags and street art. We also spoke to a man in his fifty’s sitting on a chair. I asked him about the street art and graffiti. He says he started it all. One day a girl came and did it, took a couple of pictures, but the next day he got there and someone had written all over it. He rang her up and she said that was just the way of the street – open to response, to be defaced, to be altered to be hated or loved. I think this touches on how street art, graffiti occupies such a different space in our visual culture. With advertising we aren’t allowed to respond, if we do it is vandalism, but with street art and messages you can. It becomes a really fluid space for dialogue, even if it’s just to swear.
Brockley was an interesting walk as it was so different from Brixton & Peckham. It didn’t have the same activity, hustle and bustle, there were less people milling around, it had a much more suburban feel to it. As an area it deserved more walks at various times during the week. It didn’t quite work as a space to just go and see what happens.
Here, the walks actually followed the Brockley Street Art Festival that took place earlier in the summer. These paintings are legal, having sought the OK of the local council to paint on walls and hoardings. The catalyst for the festival was actually because just outside Brockley Station a Bob Marley Mural was removed to build new flats. The community was upset as it had been around for forty years. So, it set out to recreate it and then some.
The festival itself aimed to improve the appearance of the Brockley Corridor and its surrounding neighbourhood through a showcase of murals by local, national, and international artists. I was personally really interested in some writing on hoardings, actually on the outside of this new building going up which has three white women shopping for cacti (who knew it was a thing?) and someone has taken a pen and responded with “the mortgages are like so affordable” but also “Brockley is on the down turn, like the rest of UK”.
I did speak to a few people, and everyone found them quite beautiful. But it remained at that. So, Brockley primarily seemed more aesthetic in its use of street art, but also had some retort in the form of these scribblings on hoardings. I left feeling like Brockley was at the beginning of certain change.
Shoreditch needs no introduction. Because it’s such a vibrant space for street art, I initially didn’t want to go there as I thought that whatever ‘messages’ I was hoping for wouldn’t be there – too consumeristic, I thought. Intrinsically, this is the space that revealed the most pieces against the system. During the final walk in Shoreditch, the term “post-gentrification” was used, and it came up again in the workshop. Though there are several problematics with using phrases like this, I believe it helped to understand that a change has occurred so fundamentally that it now did not look like anything it once was.
As the last area to go walking in, it was easier to look back on the four neighbourhoods as different moments in a process of change. The themes revealed a narrative around changing spaces, and in Brockley-Brixton-Peckham & Shoreditch street art becomes embroiled in processes of change.
The other neighbourhoods seemed to fit into different stages of change with Brixton, Peckham, Brockley and Shoreditch all sitting on some spectrum of change, and with urban street art framing some of the narratives of that change. I think something to tease out of this project is to focus more on what those phases would be.
What is Creative Placemaking?
I became aware that I hadn’t really given a definition of what this means. That’s predominantly because throughout the project, I’ve been trying to define it. I obviously had some notions of what it did mean to me, but again in the same way with just going for a walk, I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t try to shove my preconceived idea of what it had to mean without interacting with it in the first place.
It was during the workshop that we began deconstruct and then reconstruct each word. What this meant was that when we recombined them they revealed new understandings. So for example, creative place making also became: innovative environment building, or; chance transcient curating, or; ephemeral attachment consciousness.
In a nutshell, this is what Creative Placemaking has come to mean to me: the act of creating something that connects you to a physical space for a moment. In that moment, that space is yours and forms your identity.
Is there a single definition? Absolutely not. I believe that Creative Placemaking can be very different things depending on intent of the maker – Indeed, I would argue that creative place making can only be experienced by the maker. Is it a working definition? Yes. Creative place making, is also not a process with an end point, but the constant transforming, defining and re-defining, and curating of public spaces. Street art and street messages exist in an interesting space. By straddling legal and illegal divides, by being driven by different needs – community, individualistic, ego, aesthetic – it is a very active process.
Finally, I believe that street art creates narratives, allowing us to understand changing spaces. In order to understand a community, we should look at its walls.
Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. Her project Street Messages & Creative Place Making was funded by the Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanist Small Grants Scheme.