Street Art and Urban Spaces: A catalyst for community engagement? | ZIANA SAJID and NADIA BERTOLINO
Architecture is often known to be the art and science of designing a space. It is often perceived from a very technical aspect that deals merely with the field of construction and building. With the rapid advancements in the present day world, the technical side of this discipline seems to overpower the creative and artistic trait that indeed sets it apart from other fields. Hence this literary piece aims to throw light on how art, when intertwined with architecture leads to profound findings and aids in establishing consequent inferences.
Graffiti and street art are one of the few art forms whose existence and being, solely depends on the architecture. Often, spaces created by built and unbuilt structures form the canvas for the circulation of political and social messages, rising the public attention toward key issues.
“Dedicated to the poor and homeless here and around the globe”,
Exarcheia District, Athens, © Nadia Bertolino 2015.
Legal and illegal
Graffiti is an art form which is often looked down upon due to its inherent illegal nature. However, this art form has evolved from mere scribblings of protest to beautiful pieces of art which are precious work of graffiti artists. These artists generally display their exquisite work on the surfaces of a city after attaining permission from the concerned authorities, thereby identifying it as Street Art.
Street art has grown to enhance the experience of a place. It completely modifies the aesthetical feel of that place. The message conveyed by these art pieces often influence the thoughts of its audience. Besides adding colour, vibrancy and dimension to space it also escalates the virtual quality of that place. This art form has been used to reactivate spaces globally. Wynwood Arts District in Miami, Florida was a former industrial zone. The abandoned factories and warehouses were eventually converted into art galleries and studios. The peripheral surface was brought to life through street art, successfully reviving and resurrecting the space. Artists have liberally used the walls in this district as a medium of expression, making a significant achievement in the field of art and architecture.
Having seen how street art positively influences architecture as well as the social aspect of places, we felt the need to closely understand the relationship between art, architecture and society. Sheffield, one of the growing arts hub in the United Kingdom was chosen to understand this interesting bond.
Sheffield was formerly known for its significant contributions in the field of steel industries. Unfortunately, the last two decades witnessed a steep decline in the industrial field along with the closure of many firms. However, the extremely favourable geographical position of Sheffield eventually led to its evolution into an arts-centric region. Artists from different parts of United Kingdom have been attracted to this city. Recent studies reveal that Sheffield is one of the major cities having the most number of artists’ studios outside London. The formation of the Cultural Industry Quarter within the city centre was indeed a milestone in the journey of Sheffield into becoming an arts’ hub. Street art is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and appreciated forms of art in the city. They have grown to become important landmarks, thereby fostering a virtual connection with the society.
Notes on research methodology
In order to better understand how street art is received by the society in Sheffield, we performed certain experimental tasks by means of interactive and non-interactive observation.
NON – INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION: This type of observation consisted of tasks which were largely based on an observational analysis. A self-evaluation of the entire process and inferences obtained during the observation led to the formation of a structured analysis.
The first task involved the creation of three main walking routes within a virtual radius of 2km from the city center. These routes were designed based on the information obtained from internet research and university activities in Sheffield. The routes were distinguished from each other based on a colour system – Red, Blue and Green routes. The red route covered the areas to the north of the city center, while the southern parts were covered by the green route. The blue walking route was entirely dedicated to the areas included within the virtual boundaries of the city center, including the Cultural Industry Quarter. The entire walking task was successfully completed over a period of five days. During the walk through each route, all the street art encountered was mapped. Consequently, a final map was produced and eventually analysed. Below is the final outcome of the mapping exercise.
Walking routes across Sheffield, © Ziana Sajid 2016.
Most of the street art in Sheffield is located within the city center, closely located to the Cultural Industry Quarter. Since the city center has a large flow of public movement on a daily basis, it is one of the ideal locations for street art display as it will ensure a higher rate of capturing public attention.
Five prominent works of street art, located within this sector were chosen to perform the second task of non-interactive observation. They are as follows: Harry Brearley – Howard Street; You’ll thank me one day – Brown Street; Rutland arms – Brown Street; Eye catching – Sylvester Street; Arundel Joinery Wall – Arundel Street.
A total of eight hours were spent at each of the five chosen locations. Hourly observations were recorded along with a photograph aimed to show the relation established by the art with its surroundings during this intense examination period. The two main areas of observation were – the number of people passing by in each hour and the number of people noticing the street art in that hour. The observations were recorded in a tabular format. Similarly, tabular recordings were made on remaining four days, at four different locations, with a photographic evidence to support each observation.
Harry Brearley, Howard Street, © Ziana Sajid 2016.
Street art in prime locations like Harry Brearley, had a large number of passersby as Howard Street is the vital pedestrian link between the train station and the city center. Hence the per head count was on the higher side in comparison to other locations. People rested on the green patch that staged the enormous mural, keenly observing the art. Although most of the observation might be unintentional, the art definitely managed to stir interest and capture the attention of most observers.
On the contrary, street art like Eye Catching failed to capture public attention due to its unfavourable location in terms of accessibility. Fewer number of people were seen on the streets hence this piece of art has proved to be futile in reaching out to a huge crowd.
INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION: Post analysing the street art culture on a self-observatory manner, there was an impending need to mingle with the public and understand their thoughts regarding the same. In order to perform this task, a questionnaire was made with the intention of distributing them in the above selected five areas. The questionnaire was prepared with an aim of extracting public view on the existing street art culture in Sheffield and their liking towards this art form. It was designed to reveal a few basic personal details of the person answering them. This was done to check if there was any obvious answering pattern created in the process. The main questions were typically dichotomous, in order to obtain simple results in the form of ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The entire task was completed over a period of three days. Although the assignment description sounds undemanding, it was indeed quite a task to get the public involved in a conversation about street art and eventually answer the questionnaire. Although I was faced by a lot of people who were disinterested to spend a few minutes indulging in conversations about street art, I did come across many who were more than delighted to share their views and opinions.
A catalyst for engagement?
This task was successfully completed by attaining 42 answered questionnaires. They were compiled into a tabular format to ease the analysis procedure. The results of the analysis clearly state that all the participants were in complete support for this art form and expressed keen interest to see a lot more of them defining the artistic membrane of the city.
The participants were majorly artists and students, who had observed the street art beforehand. Hence most of them had tried to explore the message intended to be conveyed by the art. Some of them also tried to structure a very personalized interpretation of the thoughts encountered by the street artists which resulted in producing these magnificent drapes in the heart of the city.
Irrespective of their professional background and age, all the interviewees seemed to appreciate this kind of public art and undoubtedly wanted to see more of it. The data collected from the questionnaires reveal that people belonging to a creative background had more knowledge about the art, in comparison to those who belong to more technical and professional fields such as engineers, administrators etc. The short conversations with the participants revealed that, people belonging to a younger age group exercised their imagination skills attempting to envision the artists’ intention behind creating such a piece.
Pie charts were used to represent the qualitative data obtained through this mode of analysis. The diagrams precisely indicated the number of people favouring this art form and willing to see more of it in Sheffield city.
As a result of the experiments performed in Sheffield and the analysis hence obtained, we conclude that street art is undoubtedly a very powerful tool to engage public. It could be a powerful innovative mode to communicate and reach out to the public. According to the research participants, street art in the urban space definitely adds to the aesthetic value of a place. It successfully manages to modify the shielding skin of a place, by adding colour, vibrancy and in depth meaning to that place. This is indeed one of the paramount art forms which grows well when brought out of the bounding walls of a typical gallery. It merges and eventually grows on to the architectural surfaces in the city, creating a visual impact on the perception of the urban environment.
According to the interviewees, when street art is practiced in accordance with urban regulations, it is not seen as a form of vandalism, in fact it is appreciated and well received by public.
Coining this practice as a legal art form is still an open and debatable platform, although recent phenomenon goes against the origins and deeper nature of the movement that was raised as a form of protest and political commentary, literally scratched onto public walls.
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Banksy Street Art Exhibition in New York. 2013. [Film] : TheLip TV.
 Architect, MA Architectural Design at University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
 Architect, Research Fellow in Architecture and Design Activism, Northumbria University, United Kingdom