Socialist street art makes my heart sing

I have always been a huge fan of street art and its accessibility to the people — anyone can see and interact with it, anyone can participate in it, anyone can make it. Whether people are highly skilled artists capable of creating amazing works or kids making chalk drawings on the sidewalk, it promotes a world in which art is valued, and in which everyone has access to outlets for viewing and making art. Art is important. Art is life. Culturally, people seem to forget that.

Street art in particular also tends to be highly political in nature, as a medium of expression for people who cannot make their voices heard in other ways. Maybe it’s artists who don’t want their work locked away in museums and galleries where people cannot necessarily reach it, or where they will be barred from interacting with it (I really like it when displays encourage you to touch the art, to view it up close, to engage with it, and I’m still resentful at the security guard who whisked in when I leaned in to see a painting up close because I was interested in the brush strokes). Others want to use art to reach a broad public — billboard activism, say, done in the knowledge that thousands or millions will see it before it’s hidden away again.

It’s also a form of conversation, a back and forth in a community or neighbourhood. Walking through low-income communities in particular, I constantly see people interacting through art. Entire conversations take place in a variety of media, sometimes coded in ways specific to the community, sometimes totally inaccessible to outsiders, creating an ingroup solidarity as people try to organise in an environment that’s often hostile to low-income, marginalised communities. Such conversations really don’t take place on the streets of wealthy and middle class communities, where they’d be dismissed as ‘vandalism’ and covered up immediately, returning a cold, sterile environment to its prior condition.

It makes me deeply sad when cities creep through and erase these conversations in the name of keeping neighbourhoods clean and safe. The use of art to exchange ideas and information is a form of safety, a form of community building. People may never meet each other, but their art creates a bond between them. Until it’s shredded by a city employee with a pressure washer or a paint roller, or a business that hires a cleanup crew.

I’m particularly fascinated by socialist street art right now and the use of art for activism. There’s the artist in San Francisco who posted ‘for rent’ signs on objects like dumpsters and mailboxes, making a stark commentary about the real estate market in the city. Many extolled the virtues of their setting with the same kind of hyperbolic language used by realtors and property management companies, and it made for an uncomfortable walk through the city for some, at least. It was funny, but it was also dark, and it was also speaking a simple truth. San Francisco is a city with an out of control housing market and living in a dumpster isn’t so far off from reality for some people.

I also really love ‘chalk,’ an annual project in New York City that commemorates the Triangle Fire. For those not familiar, the Triangle Fire was a horrific factory fire in New York City in 1911 that swept through multiple floors of a garment manufacturing workshop, killing nearly 150 workers, most of whom were young immigrants. The fire was a galvanising moment for America, where people were already labouring in awful conditions. Suddenly the middle class and the wealthy were confronted with the reality being endured in the factories humming with sewing machines and other equipment of the readymade revolution.

The victims of the fire were trapped behind locked doors and elevators out of order, in a building with minimal fire control equipment and narrow, dangerous stairwells. Some managed to flee via the roof, but others flung themselves out the windows rather than die a horrific death in the flames, which fed on the scraps of cotton and wooden components of the factory like hungry wolves. People gathered to watch, and they gathered to look at the victims as they were laid out in a temporary morgue, and they gathered to push for reforms in the garment industry and elsewhere. Triangle and the subsequent events in labour reform didn’t magically fix terrible conditions in America, but they were definitely a turning point.

‘chalk’ is a complicated and impressive project, drawing upon the known names of victims and tracing them to their addresses. It’s an incredible feat of ancestry and history research conducted by people who are very skilled at what they do — and every year on the anniversary of the fire, people fan out across the city to make memorials. They write the names of victims on the sidewalk in aggressively colourful chalk, noting their ages, referencing the fire.

It’s a form of confronting people with the ugly history of the United States, while also commemorating the fire, but it’s also something that poses a challenge to the observer. What has changed since then? What hasn’t? As we export most of our production of consumer goods to nations with much more lax labour laws, and we watch horrific disasters like Rana Plaza unfold, are we really any better than the profiteering people of 1911 who took advantage of poor young women trying to build better lives for themselves and their families? As we skirt the chalk in our clothing from Forever 21 or the Gap, are we complicit in a different kind of Triangle?

This is art that is quietly, yet firmly revolutionary. The goal isn’t shock and awe, but a commentary on society and one that demands attention — and putting it out onto the streets is the most effective and persuasive way to present it. Something about the cold environs of a museum or gallery just wouldn’t have the same effect.

Image: Love the Pink and Purple, luxjnx, Flickr