Interviewsand Articles


A Note on Art in the Streets

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 1, 2023



Photos - R. Whittaker

Taking a cue from artist Derek Weisberg, in issue #42 I wanted to include a few examples of public art beholden to the graffiti subculture. Given that graffiti and graffiti-influenced murals are plentiful in the East Bay, it was easy to find great examples. I can’t think of any city I’ve visited (including all the cities I've visited in Europe) that doesn’t have plenty of graffiti adorning (or defacing, as many feel) its public spaces.

I recall a documentary about graffiti set in New York in the early 1980s and being mesmerized by its vitality and the drama involved in its creation. There was something compelling about it, and revelatory - both of the capacities of its makers and its implications about our culture.   

As Weisberg says, “In the mid-90s, there was a whole group of artists who came out of the graffiti subculture and started making art on the streets. [Many] were painting these figurative, graffito-like murals. There were people in New York making stylized, cartoony figuration—kind of illustrative, but very expressive. Things were exaggerated. And it was all out on the streets—that shared graffiti aesthetic of murals for everyday people, and about everyday people—that I both responded to and wanted to express myself.”

The photo “Public Space” is from Berkeley’s iconic and embattled People’s Park. As Jay Barmann wrote in SFiST in 2019, “On April 20, 1969, a group of activists, Berkeley residents and idealistic Cal students took it upon themselves to take a blighted, empty lot next to the university campus and turn it into a public park. In the fifty years since, People’s Park has come to symbolize a particularly fractious moment in the history of counterculture protest in America.” That fractiousness has recently gone all the way to the Supreme Court.

“Public Space Is Public Space”
However far from clear the above declaration might be (anything goes?) its implication for graffiti, besides being nicely self-affirming, points toward an ideal of, at least, a commons—if not to a dream of a culture free from inequalities.

It’s hard not to be touched by the hunger that lies beneath graffiti—the hunger for recognition, for the utilization of wasted human potential, and for meaning. Isn’t it grafitti’s unmediated presence in its often elegantly particular forms that gives it such potency? It’s hard not to believe that if only we could heed these “writings on the walls” we might find ways to open pathways to a treasure trove of potential.   


Photos - from top to bottom:
1. Clark Kerr campus, UCB
2. Telegraph Ave. Berkeley CA
3. People's Parkl. Berkeley CA
4. West Oakland CA
5. West Oakland CA
6. Off Telegraph Ave. Oakland CA
7. Off Haight St. San Francisco
8. Amsterdam
9. Amsterdam
10. Catania Sicily
11. Catania Sicily


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.       


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