studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
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Protest poster from May 1968. As referenced by Claire Bishop in her book on participatory art:

During May 1968, one could find graffiti proclaiming ‘To be free in 1968 means to participate’, while at the same time the Atelier Populaire produced posters showing a hand and pen, conjugating the verb to more sceptical ends: ‘Je participe, tu participes, il participe, nous participons, vous participez, ils profitent.’ (Bishop, p 79)

Protest poster from May 1968. As referenced by Claire Bishop in her book on participatory art:

During May 1968, one could find graffiti proclaiming ‘To be free in 1968 means to participate’, while at the same time the Atelier Populaire produced posters showing a hand and pen, conjugating the verb to more sceptical ends: ‘Je participe, tu participes, il participe, nous participons, vous participez, ils profitent.’ (Bishop, p 79)

Hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory, the Graffiti Dialogues Network at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) and Southbank Centre, the Graffiti Sessions (December 3-5, 2014 in London, UK) will gather a wide group of experts to explore the evolving roles of graffiti and street art in the urban environment. Contributors include: Chantal Mouffe on agonistic public spaces, Jane Golden on using arts for transformation, Devon Ostrom on billboard fees for arts practice and more.

The ambition is to challenge deep-rooted preconceptions and speculation that have until now limited the progress of both policy and practice related to street art and graffiti. 


DAY 1: The Illegal Sessions.

How can cops, courts and cleaning of graffiti be more economically and socially sustainable for the publics they serve? What would improved spatial justice look like for the diverse groups affected by graffiti? This day will address structures for managing vandalism and graffiti, and theories of understanding relationships between design and crime, as well as activities supporting graffiti, and the roles of graffiti and street art in gentrification. 

DAY 2: The Legal Sessions

Can street art and graffiti related practices support claims that they can resocialise or regenerate cities and neighbourhoods? What are the positive examples that can more transferably show the role of graffiti and street art in genuine regeneration? What are the most innovative ways of assessing the impact of street art, graffiti and urban creative practice on places and publics? 

DAY 3: A Call to Action

How can artistic interventions or better management help people love places more? How do or could street art and graffiti contribute to making safer and more social places? What is it that promotes enjoyment – artistic interventions or the way such spaces are managed?

Mau Piailug, master navigator and teacher. Click through to Vimeo to watch the full-length documentary Papa Mau: The Wayfinder which documents the lasting legacy of Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug, who revived the art of traditional voyaging and reawakened cultural pride throughout Polynesia.


New mural by @kameahadar and @808urban in Honolulu, Hawaii for @hokuleawwv. Photo by @contrastmag. @olukai.

Decolonizing Street Art: Anti-Colonial Street Artists Convergence (decolonizingstreetart on FBis happening right now in Montreal. I got so excited I bought one of their “decolonize" patches as a small way to signal support, despite the nearly 5,000 miles between there and here*.

The artists, living across Canada and the USA, already focus part of their work on issues related to indigenous resistance such as environmental struggles against pipelines and mining and justice for missing and murdered native women.

EVENTS: Throughout the Anti-Colonial Street Artists Convergence, visiting and local artists will be creating art pieces on the streets of Tiohtià:ke (Montreal) between August 22 until September 3. Some of these collaborations will be open to the public.

Participants will share ideas on how to take action against appropriative imagery found in Tiohtià:ke street art & more general hipster visual culture. The will be some art materials available on site for direct action.

* [which reminds me that I think it’s pretty shitty that the University of Hawai’i at Manoa campus bookstore’s clothing boutique sells a tshirt that has a graphic of a pug wearing a feather headdress.]

The ballet Les Bosquets is inspired by the French street artist JR’s first project, “Portrait of a Generation.” In 2004, JR organized an exhibition on the walls of the Cité des Bosquets, a neighborhood in the Parisian suburbs. In 2005, riots broke out in this same neighborhood, making JR’s portraits the accidental backdrop to worldwide coverage of youth disaffection.
Now choreographed by JR and set to an original score by Woodkid, Les Bosquets is a 8-minute piece performed by the New York City Ballet and jookin superstar Lil’ Buck. 


Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of linking up with Tatyana during her Artist in Residence at Betti Ono. During her time here, she held two workshops, documented the experiences of Bay Area women and created an exhibition that is on display now at the gallery. Tatyana shares out how Stop Telling Women to Smile came to be, her process for creating the posters, and what the experience has been like thus far.

Music by The Stuyvesants.

Hit up the project site Stop Telling Women to Smile for bigger images of the street art that Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has produced.

[via Because I am a woman]

(via tatyanafazlalizadeh)

The Street Museum of Art describes its project as “guerrilla curating for a radical art form” and encourages visitors to physically walk through their city and experience each piece within its original context, on the street. 
Back in NYC for its 5th exhibition, the Street Museum put the artists in charge.  As each artist joined the project, it then became their turn to select the next artist they wanted to see involved —and so forth and so on for a total of 18 artists. There’s no way of knowing how long each piece will last in the wild — but for 24hrs in NYC, local artists turned the city into their own public art museum through the guerrilla tactics of street art and graffiti culture.
[Description adapted from The Street Museum’s website]

Some days I really can’t figure out a way for artistic production not to be commodified and used to feed the logic of real estate production that then undermines the interstitial spaces of artistic production. Only ugly smelly art? Poop art will save us all!

Sacking Berlin: How hipsters, expats, yummies, and smartphones ruined a city [The Baffler No. 23, 2013]

This new Berlin is a city where imaginative expression supports, directly or indirectly, a grand scheme for making a small number of people rich. One of these days, some lucky Berliners and expats will finally attract venture capital from London, Palo Alto, and Boston. But the others—the scenic poor and the clever unemployeds who make the city so attractive—will find it ever more difficult to make ends meet.

In 2005, unemployment peaked at a Depressionesque 19 percent, and the city’s debt had doubled. In the mid-aughts, Berlin was not bailing out Athens. Berlin was Athens.

It was here, in this economically stagnant metropolis, that mayor Klaus Wowereit, affectionately known as “Wowi,” stood at City Hall and laid out a ten-year plan for the city. He began by denouncing striking transit workers for “attempting to cripple public life,” but went on to dream big for the city he called “poor but sexy.” He imagined a future when a hipper working class would thrive unburdened by unions: “I imagine one thousand women and men of all ages gathering for a World Congress of Creatives. The designers who live here will deliver their ideas to the world’s biggest corporations,” and “Berlin will be the mecca for the creative class.” A theme song for the city’s new ten-million-euro marketing campaign was available for download: an eight-second ringtone designed by a techno DJ with a vaguely Turkish trill and an echoing call to “be Berlin, be Berlin, be Berlin.”

Wowi’s “poor but sexy” message has certainly found traction in Silicon Allee [Berlin’s version of Silicon Valley, naturally]. For example, [the mobile game firm] Wooga’s recruitment page invites you to come and work in “the coolest city in Europe,” a kingdom of your dreams where you can attend “parties held deep underground in bunkers, old breweries, and abandoned factories” and savor an atmosphere “like New York was in the 1980s.”

Back when Berliners hung swings in window frames, painted houses in neon colors, and planted gardens on their rooftops, none of it was supposed to pay off. In the officially Creative city, though, everything is different. The town’s whimsy and play have been branded by the SPD, sold to venture capital, and dangled before its residents via the Yummie Net.

[Berlin Beach Bar]

As a belated nod to World Water Week, the next few days of posts will cover water issues.

[Watershed - Jesse Graves from the Watershed Project]

The project Watershed: Art, Activism, and Community Engagement used art as a form of activism to comment on water issues in Milwaukee and the Great Lakes Basin. During the course of the project, the Milwaukee Common Council considered a proposal that would have sold Milwaukee’s water rights to a private investor for one hundred years. The organizers Raoul Deal and Nicolas Lampert collaborated with artists and students who tackled issues such as water shortages, notions of abundance, water privatization, invasive species, industrial pollution, and water as a human right. 

[A mural created as part of a community printmaking workshop with local middle school students]

In an initial conversation with Sharon Adams, Walnut Way [Conservation Corp’s] director, Raoul Deal learned of her experiences growing up in the neighborhood and how she learned to swim with all of her cousins in a nearby swimming pool. That pool is now the site of a local tavern. When [Sharon] Adams began to work with children in the area, she learned that many had never seen Lake Michigan, despite it being only three miles east of the neighborhood. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “about how access leads to stewardship.” That thought guided workshop activities, which included a trip to the lake, a print workshop, and a mural that Deal and participants painted and installed together in October 2010 in a community garden located a few houses down from the Walnut Way Conservation Corp. As part of this effort, they installed forty rain gardens throughout the community.

“Tower of Power” critiques the World Bank privatization schemes that have opened up the floodgates for multinational corporations to buy up and sell fresh water sources throughout the world. The World Bank logo adorns the outside of the water tank, while two sets of price tags hang down from the tower for viewers to read. One set details information about multinational water, energy, and bottling corporations including Veoloa, Vivendi, Suez, RWE, Bechtel, Thames Water, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi. The other set details information about organizations, community groups, and individuals who are organizing around water issues and environmental justice.

Part of strangeness of the rise of graffiti and street art as a phenomenon has been how quickly it has been adopted as a beautification tool used by the same people who would have kicked and hollered about young hoodlums in hoodies terrorizing the neighborhood back in the day.

I’m working on an interactive poster presentation for the upcoming Culture of Cities conference “Poeticizing the Urban Apparatus.” This is excerpted from my working draft.


[Kaka’ako, Honolulu]

Temporary use in the form of murals is an aesthetic intervention welcomed by city boosters and real estate developers in that it performs double duty as beautification and place-making/place-branding. Some warehouse districts may remain architecturally continuous. This is not the case in Kaka’ako, where the proposed 40-acre development would leave very few of the current structures standing. The employment of street art as an aesthetic tactic, however, seems secure even if particular murals may be torn down.

As Kamehameha Schools’ commercial real estate director Paul Quintiliani stated in an interview, “What goes up will change over time but the walls themselves will be permanent tapestries.” Even interiors are referencing the urban. A mid-rise apartment building renovated in 2012 by Kamehameha Schools features elevator lobbies painted by Pow Wow Hawaii artists and “an industrial, urban-loft ambience” that matches the “youngish vibe of the emerging Kakaako district.”


[Wynwood, Miami]

An examination of how other American cities have recently embraced street art is instructive in revealing how this specific genre of art has been adopted as a marker of the new urban cultural-economy. In the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, another warm-weather tourist town, “developers and gallery owners are deploying a place-making strategy of murals and diverse types of graffiti to attract residents and tourists… to cosmetically alter the public realm.” The Wynwood Walls group describes the genesis of this street art boom as being the brainchild of a “renowned community revitalizer [sic] and placemaker” who looked at windowless warehouses and saw “giant canvases.”

Tactical urbanism advocate Mike Lydon describes the Atlanta street art project Living Walls as “pair[ing] world-class artists with property owners looking to combat blight and attract investment with an enhanced sense of place” (Lydon, 2012).  Tucson’s tactical urbanism-cum-murals are also landlord supported. One gallery owner explained that mural pieces are critical visual identifiers for the buildings and the district as a whole, “otherwise, it’s just a collection of run-down warehouses with cool renovated interiors.” This deployment of a stylized and recognizable street art aesthetic is a further evolution of the urban cultural-economy’s emphasis on visual consumption (Arefi & Triantafillou, 2005; Loukaitou-Sideris & Banerjee 1998; Inam 2002).




[Detail from the Great Wall of Los Angeles]

Part of my research looks at the aesthetic component of the right to the city. I was extra excited to find this dissertation by Stefano Bloch (2012 from University of Minnesota, now on faculty at CSU Northridge), ”The Changing Face of Wall Space: Graffiti-murals in the context of neighborhood change in Los Angeles.” As someone who has fallen into the “oooh neato!” camp of mural appreciation, the historical and contemporary context to street art production is absolutely critical when talking about participatory urbanism and its potential. Below is the outline of his research, as pulled from his introduction, but I think Bloch has adapted most of his research into various journal articles. Images added may not accurately reflect text, my image search game wasn’t top-notch this morning.

P.S. I was in Echo Park last month to eat at The Park’s Finest (poet-made barbecue is delicious!). If we hadn’t been too amped up on the coconut beef and bibingka cornbread, I would have remembered to wander around and look for the murals.

Los Angeles has long been touted as “the mural capital of the world” given the number of Mexican, traditional, and Chicano murals painted in the city beginning in the 1930s… As I show in this historical geography of the changing appearance of wall space in and around the Echo Park district of Los Angeles, the proliferation of graffiti-murals painted on public wall space may indicate the rise of a new aesthetic, motivation, and practice in the production of wall art. 

In chapter 3 I begin my discussion and classification of murals produced in Los Angeles between 1932 and 1984 by Mexican muralists, artists working under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), and los muralistas aligned with the Chicano rights movement la causa. As part of this brief history and typology I also define graffiti-murals before providing a discussion about some of the factors that led to the destruction of traditional murals in L.A. during the 1990s.


In chapter 4 I provide a history of neighborhood restructuring in and around the Echo Park and Silver Lake districts of Los Angeles. I rely on the photography of Los Angeles Housing Authority photographer Leonard Nadel as a means of illustrating this period of community upheaval before moving on to my case study of Judith Baca’s Evolution of a Gang Member painted on the Sunset Boulevard retaining walls in 1975.


[Leonard Nadel’s photograph of a family in Aliso Village]

In chapter 5 I provide a case study of Ernesto De La Loza’s Inner City Kickin’ It by first introducing the destruction of the Belmont Tunnel and Yard from a thirdspace perspective. Within my discussion of De La Loza’s mural I provide an analysis of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990 and how it has effected the longevity of both legally and illegally produced murals on the Sunset Boulevard retaining walls.

In chapter 6 I provide a short discussion of identity politics as an introduction to my case study of Cache and Eye One’s illegally produced Los Angeles: untitled. I discuss their graffiti-mural in the context of contemporary neighborhood revitalization, showing how the Echo Park community’s tacit acceptance of these graffiti-murals challenge traditional dualisms that posit graffiti as either in or out of place.


This week I’ll be (somewhat) thematically focused on street art, murals, etc. To start us off, here is research from UC Berkeley’s Teresa P. R. Caldeira that she conducted in São Paulo on graffiti and pixação. Also included here as counterpoint are the semi-decontextualized celebratory videos from global media as well as one street video of pixadores on the move at night.

Teresa P. R. Caldeira, “Imprinting and Moving Around: New Visibilities and Configurations of Public Space in São Paulo,” Public Culture 24:2 (2012)

Moreover, graffiti in São Paulo has developed an amicable relationship with city hall, unlike responses to graffiti in cities such as New York. The municipal administration in São Paulo has frequently sponsored graffiti instead of only repressing and erasing it, alleging that it can help improve, beautify, and recuperate public spaces. In this context, the city authorizes many large graffiti pieces and designates and prepares the spaces in which they will be applied.[12] Sometimes graffiti has also had the patronage of private institutions.[13] 

Graffiti has thus become a type of relatively sanctioned public art in São Paulo and is so prevalent that it has become its own tourist attraction: graffiti tours are now easily available in the city. Moreover, São Paulo’s most famous graffiti artists, such as osgemeos and Nunca, are not only well known but have transitioned their work into the circuit of mainstream art galleries, from São Paulo to London’s Tate Modern and beyond, commanding very high prices for their work.

In July – August 2010 there were at least nine exhibitions of street art in São Paulo, both in the official circuit of art institutions and with support from the Municipal Secretary of Culture and from corporations and in the alternative art circuits. Street art and graffiti have definitively been integrated into the cultural production of the city.

If graffiti has always maintained links to the art world and can be assimilated into the imaginary of art and beauty, pixação is not absorbable in any easy way and has remained much more transgressive. Pixação is equivalent to American tagging, the writing in public spaces usually in black and without figuration.[14] 

It started to be noticed in the city around 1980 and spread immensely in the 1990s and 2000s. Pixação is made either with spray cans or with black paint and small foam rollers. São Paulo’s pixação has its own renowned style: a calligraphy made of vertically elongated and pointy letters using straight lines. It is sometimes called “straight tag”—tag reto. Some say that this letter type has been inspired by São Paulo’s tall buildings. Others argue that it derives from the type of gothic letters used on the covers and sleeves of heavy metal and punk records popular in the 1980s and 1990s.[15]

[12.] Neil E. Schlecht (1995) convincingly argues that this relationship with city hall was consolidated starting in the late 1980s by the first generation of graffiti artists. It was especially strong during two Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party) administrations in the city, but even the current administration under the rule of Cidade Limpa continues to sponsor and authorize murals, while also painting over existing ones.

[13.] A famous example is the project São Paulo Capital Graffiti sponsored by a partnership among Fundação BankBoston, Cidade Escola Aprendiz (a nongovernmental organization [NGO] dedicated to educational programs), Tintas Suvinil (a large producer of paints), and the city of São Paulo (through the Coordenadoria Especial da Juventude [Special Coordination on Youth]) in 2003–4. This project painted fifty-one large walls distributed all over the city. The results were documented in an art book, Scavone 2004, distributed to the VIP clients of BankBoston.

[14.] On São Paulo’s pixação, see Boleta, ed. 2006. Ttsss … A grande arte da pixação em São Paulo, Brasil. São Paulo: Editora do Bispo.[15.] For an analysis of this calligraphy and its relations to other typographic forms, see Chastanet, François. 2007. Pixação: São Paulo signature. Paris: XGpress.

Pixações, for example, are frequently illegible to anybody else but the group of practitioners that tag them. They are not necessarily intended to be deciphered, nor do they commonly transmit any immediate message, much less an immediate political message. During the military years, there were some forms of political inscriptions, the best known being the Abaixo a ditadura, or Down with the Dictatorship, a message written to be understood and thus using plain roman capitals as letters. Pixadores rarely write a phrase with political meaning. When they do, they may demand peace or write messages in roman capitals that sarcastically reveal their take on society: “Cidade Limpa de políticos corruptos” (City Clean of Corrupt Politicians) or “Brasil … onde graffiti é crime e corrupção é arte” (Brazil … where graffiti is crime and corruption is art).


However, São Paulo’s typical pixa­ção is an inscription in tag reto with three parts (see also Pereira 2005). The first or central part, the pixo, is the label of a group. Pixadores belong to turmas, and all members write the same pixo with exactly the same style. The second part of a pixação, usually on the left-hand side, is the grife (label). It is often a diagram, a logo, and stands for a larger group formed by many crews. The third part, on the right-hand side of the pixo, indicates individual authorship, frequently with the initials of the individual pixadores who participated in one specific pixação or the name of the pixador plus the date. This three-part inscription clearly indicates that pixação is more about the collectivity than it is about the individual: usually one does not tag alone but as part of a group. Sometimes the names of pixadores who have died are added as a way of honoring them and keeping them alive.


The names of turmas and grifes commonly refer to notions of criminality, marginality, filth, transgression, drugs, and madness. Examples include the Dirtiest (Os + Imundos), Vice (Vício), the Nothings (Os Porra Nenhuma), Energumens (Energúmenos), Tombs (Túmulos), Abnormals (Anormais), and the Worst (Os Piores).

Although aggressively public, however, pixações have no intention of emphasizing dignity, citizenship, law, or rights, as was the case with the urban social movements. They are not gestures toward social inclusion, as are some examples of graffiti that have become icons of urban art. Pixa­ção is a clear transgression, marked by aggressiveness and a stubborn resistance to assimilation. Pixação accepts the illicit as something both inevitable and desirable, as the only location from where young men from the peripheries can talk.