Street art and graffiti started as a movement of the oppressed that sought to spread political messages or reclaim space. However, as the art form has gained currency with young money, there is a growing trend of marketers trying to use street art to sell their products. Just like authentic mom and pop Mexican food shops being outcompeted by the Taco Bell franchise, the future of street art lies precariously in a place where the people that created it may now begin losing their rights to decide its future.
So what do the artists have to say about commodification of street art and street art culture? Increasingly, the answer is simply a coat of wet paint. In cities such as Berlin, artists are beginning to cover up street art that has brought wealthy and "trendy" people into the neighborhood. While some have been agitated by this political act, the truth is that the artists are often victims of gentrification and "urban renewal."
Many of the artists, as well as their friends and families, are forced to leave these neighborhoods because of rising rental costs. Their popular anti-establishment art, ironically, is what has attracted developers, money-centric landlords and, ultimately, wealthier youth. This is why nowadays, it is artists, and not the government, who are beginning to cover up street art.
While Kitchener’s size and street art tradition is nowhere near the scale of that in New York, it has some spectacular pieces of street artwork. In a more neutral use of street art, Mount Hope-Breithaupt Park Neighbourhood Association is proactively using it to slow down traffic that is otherwise causing some danger to pedestrians and cyclists. My favorite is the mural near the bus terminal, which depicts several symbols of the Haundenasaunee Confederacy, a conglomeration of six First Nations (Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples) who legally own the land the city is on.
This mural is significant as the Six Nations and the Anishinaabeg (who also have claim to the land) have been relegated to a far smaller territory due to ongoing colonization. Currently, these nations are fighting in the courts to have their sovereignty recognized. Street art is one way in which the besieged First Nations can say: “We have sovereignty over this land; the land’s history is still here, and we are still here.”
So what will be the fate of this iconic street-art mural? With the trendiness of the area increasing, will it soon grace the back of a posh coffee shop? Or will it be washed over, only to be replaced by “street art” that is really an advertising ploy for Mr. Clean? Only time will tell. The future of street art and urban marginalization in Kitchener will ultimately depend on the choices of those with most power. And believe it or not, this time power means people like me, the trendy urban youth.
Is street art common in the city you are from? Is street art being used as a tool for community empowerment or as marketing tool to increase trendiness? Please share your thoughts and city's stories below.
Credits: Images by Becca Redden and Auditiyo Das Gupta. Also, a special thank you to Becca for providing valuable context information about the complex practices of street art and graffiti.