public art

When the Working Class Speaks

A former pawn shop on West 34th Street in Austin, Texas
Access Road of IH-35 in Austin Texas

The most common refrain when a neighborhood is taken over by the local government is that “no one came to the meetings or spoke out against the process.” While the methods of communicating with local government are many, most methods are closed to the working class due to scheduling, follow up, and execution. Meanwhile, most of the working class speaks if people bother to listen, but largely on its own terms instead of those dictated by the upper echelons. Graffiti is such a universal tactic that there are almost no countries affected by it, and the styles vary as much as the artists. Rather than see graffiti as vandalism, it becomes crucial to understand it as the working class expressing itself in a visible, yet unintrusive way.

Opening Mural for “Piecing It Together”

What is often misunderstood about street art is that there is a code among artists, and most of the time, a great deal of care is put into not covering the work of other artists. The exhibit “Piecing It Together” at the Mexican American Cultural Center shows a snippet of the dedication it takes to produce the art that so many of us take for granted. This was a specific exhibit that was put together by an Austin native who has been painting for over 16 years, and made it his life’s work to “legitimize” graffiti and protect that part of Austin culture. Unlike the Graffiti Park at Castle Hill, most graffiti artists find their own spots and do their best to ensure that their art is tastefully displayed standing alone. Those who have used graffiti to appear “edgy” have more than likely misunderstood its original intent. Graffiti tells the stories of those who have been marginalized, but in a world obsessed with property values, there is little outlet for people who have an unconventional way to speak.

Photos of Murals in Austin’s Graffiti History

Even as more lofts and minimalist architecture has been built around the entire country, most graffiti art has been demolished in favor of “clean lines.” This is perhaps the cruelest joke on street artists: creating acres of perfect canvas only to be expected to leave it blank. While some artists have been able to cull a meager living, most have been either run out of town by the cost of living or forced to working multiple jobs to survive, stifling their expression in the hopes that they one day receive a commission. When land was cheaply valued in working class communities, there were more than enough spaces to express one’s self. Now the opportunity to display street art has been taken as far from the actual streets as possible. Even when commissions are paid, there are tailored expectations, meaning that free-form art happens more rarely despite the reputation of graffiti.

“Piecing It Together”

Unlike “conventional art,” being a muralist requires more experience rather than formal education, making it more difficult to garner connections in scarce networks. More artists are losing the opportunity to gain this skill even though there are more spaces that could benefit from some distinction against all the other displaced neighborhoods. One way to restore the trust in the community would be to offer more muralists and graffiti artists the chance to showcase their talents. All the buildings are built; there is no way around that. However, taking intentional steps to repair the damage done would be to give the marginalized a chance to express themselves.

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