The Street Art Test: Separating Cool Cities from the Rest
This is a personal theory so take it for what it is. Want to know if a city is cool? By cool, I mean young, edgy, colorful (I’m making myself sound like an old person here and not a cool person), but here goes. The telltale sign is street art, or rather the term used to describe it.
So today, Cleveland City Council comes across my Twitter feed saying “want to stop graffiti in your neighborhood?” And there you go, unequivocal proof that Cleveland is uncool.
Cleveland doesn’t know –or at least the leadership doesn’t know — about street art, the most important art movement of our generation in my opinion, the movement that made criminals like Banksy and Shepard Fairey household names (and millionaires). The art movement that has shaped the modern art world, and the world of fashion, like none other in the last few decades.
Here is a picture I took in LA:
That is what a cool city looks like.
Another example: Miami.
Street art was born in the world’s most beloved urban centers, places like New York and London. It was born of a young counterculture, that celebrated city life, the asphalt (skateboarding), the fashion. Cleveland should be littered with the stuff. But something is wrong.
Here is a picture I took in Long Island City, Queens, New York, decades after the birth of this movement:
There’s good examples even in Pittsburgh and Akron. These are street art-style, city-sanctioned murals, the kind you don’t see in Cleveland.
These are cities that get it.
Now of course, there are two separate actions here. Punks that tag buildings — producing damage without adding much aesthetically – ok, we can call that graffiti. People that paint murals, or elaborate stencils that comment on social conditions — that is art, street art. But let’s just say with a fair amount of certainty, that you sure as hell aren’t getting one (street art) without a fair amount of the other (graffiti).
You will not find any street-art inspired art in Cleveland that I am aware of, even though we have a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to creating public art. Cleveland’s public artwork — and there is a good deal of it — has almost exclusively been sculptures — objects that speak to authority, rather than artists skillfully subverting it, the way street artists did. This clashes, to a certain extent, with the prevailing aesthetic in more culturally important cities, I argue, and that’s not a good thing, in this case.
Cleveland, in this way and others, speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It wants to be a cool city. At the same time, a handful of old white guys wants to maintain vice-like control over everything that happens. And guess what? Art scenes don’t flourish in places like that. They flourish in places where creative people have room to breathe (see above).
I tried (unsuccessfully) to get a street-art style mural painted in downtown Cleveland a few years ago. And people scoffed at the idea of a mural altogether (“It’s like GRAFFITI!”) And there you have it, Cleveland is uncool.
By my test, Pittsburgh, Akron, Miami, New York, LA and Columbus are all cool. That’s just my theory. But public spaces speak powerfully to the culture of the city. And blank walls, well, they’re pretty forgettable.
When a very, very important art movement is nearly absent from the public landscape in a particular city, something is wrong with the creative culture in that city — especially if that art movement was purposely stamped out, the way I suspect it was.
Alternatively, it could be that there just aren’t a lot of artists in Cleveland that are tuned into this movement. But that leads me to the same conclusion — a lack of in-touch artists, at least none from one very important movement — means you don’t have a very vibrant arts scene, your city has been left behind. Uncool.
But hey, discuss: