I love street art. I love street art because it allows me to view people’s interactions with public space in intentional ways. Street art makes me look around and gets me to reconsider the spaces I usually ignore or take for granted. I search for it as I walk the streets of the places I live.
I see street art and street image production as a kind of public scholarship, and this way of thinking is nothing new. Lyman Chaffee’s Political Protest and Street Art: Popular Tools for Democratiazation in Hispanic Countries took up ideas of politics and street literacies in the early nineties. Moje’s (2000) article, “To be part of the story” looked at the street art literacy practices of youth who self-identified as gang-affiliated, and she notes “if we accept the analysis that these literacy practices are an important aspect of young people’s identity construction and representation, then we need to ask how they learn these practices and how they articulate these unsanctioned practices and identities with other practices and identities that they have constructed in various contexts” (p. 672). Other scholars have explored street art as an act of civic engagement, of identity, as a way to speak back to dominant discourses. It can be sexy and dissenting and problematic and angry and it is all of these things that cause me to search out street art as I walk through everyday spaces.
Last week, I was waiting for the number 18 bus at the Beaubien Metro in Montreal. I take this bus twice a day in the winter. I was thinking about a discussion that came up in my Teaching Ethics and Religious Cultures class as a piece of street art on a building caught my eye.
In this image, so much is said. The image speaks to language practices, to Franglais, to dissent and protest, and youth cultures are all implicated. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. As I looked at the image, I wondered, who is this for? As the image appears on the side of a building that is easily viewed from the bus line-up, I assume that the audience is those who take the #18: a mixed bag folks with diverse language practices. I regularly hear Quebecois, Haitian and West African French dialects, as well as Spanish, English, and Arabic on this bus. Rosemont (the neighbourhood that is intersected by the # 18) is also a politically charged and diverse neighbourhood. Walking down its side streets in the neighbourhood, you can find a lot of nationalistic propaganda mixed with left-leaning socialist-y texts, posters, and graffiti. Much of this is French. I thought about how I am implicated as an audience member for the piece. What am I supposed to think? Carrington (2009, p. 412) argues that “Graffiti is, of course, not a single genre – the term is more of an umbrella to indicate the range of generally unsanctioned texts written onto city surfaces and furniture ranging from apparently random scribbles to elegant street art. The unsanctioned graffiti texts speak to a range of imagined communities that co-exist, often unhappily, with the powerful geographies of the mainstream.” What about these geographies of the everyday?
I got on the bus, and kept thinking about my everyday geographies that I sometimes forget to notice. I also thought about the ways that street art can promote a kind of from-the-ground-up research process. If I see a piece of street art, I might photograph it, post it to a social media site where people might comment on the piece that I have seen. I might also research more about the piece, or about the tag that emerges. Where else do these images show up in the city? What are other people saying about them? Street art might not just be about transforming the way I notice this space, but it might also encourage folks to learn more about the images that are posted.
As I continued on my bus ride home, I began also to think back to a cellphilm (video made with a cellphone) that I saw as a part of the 2nd International Cellphilm Festival at McGill in 2014, Spence and Space, produced by the Montreal’s anonymous feminist graffiti collective, Wall of Femmes. The cellphilm explores the act of producing street art—a sort of behind the scenes examination of the collaboration that goes into the process. I have engaged in a close reading of the cellphilm (which can also be viewed below) to get at the process of street art and shows how street art as knowledge is produced. The cellphilm opens on a shot of spray paint cans. The camera cuts to an image of a person in blue jeans, walking down a set of stairs and onto a street. The next shot pans through a selection of graffiti imagery until we see two masked woman tagging a building. The women show a close-up of a stencil that reads Chief Theresa Spence below a profile image of Chief Spence. As the former Chief of the Attawapiskat Nation, Spence rose to national prominence in 2012 after taking to a liquid diet to protest the living conditions for Indigenous peoples on Canada’s reserves, and to call for a meeting with then Prime Minister Harper and the Governer General to meet with Chiefs across Canada. The stencil is repeated four times onto the wall, and the cellphilm ends with one of the Wall of Femmes’ members riding her bicycle off in the distance.
I have come across the Wall of Femmes’ work in my wanderings around the city. I love their use of imagery and the way that they aim to create a public scholarship around particular women. On their blog, the members of the Wall of Femmes argue “our aims are many: to promote the recognition and knowledge of women we find inspirational, assert the people’s ownership of public space, counter the bombardment of negative messages in mainstream media, and engage in public discourse by contributing to the unique culture of our city in a meaningful way.”
Thinking back to the multilingual piece of street art that began this post, I think that street art can be a way to pay attention to the everyday spaces and language and multiliteracy practices that we regularly ignore. I also think that street art can encourage a research process, from the conversations that people have about it as an artifact, to the photographing and social media archiving of the image, as well as being written about in online spaces like this blog. I believe that street art as a literacy practice encourages public discourse in a multitude of spaces (such as the bus stop or neighbourhood meetings or online spaces). I continue to wonder: What can we see when we look at these multipurpose and multilingual texts? How can we engage with space in new ways?
Carrington, V. (2009). I write, therefore I am: texts in the city. Visual Communication, 8(4), 409-425.
Chaffee, L. G. (1993). Political protest and street art: Popular tools for democratization in Hispanic countries (Vol. 40). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Moje, E. (2000). ” To be part of the story”: The literacy practices of Gangsta adolescents. The Teachers College Record, 102(3), 651-690.
Spence, T. (ca. 2012). ChiefTheresaSpence. [Twitter page]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/chieftheresa
Wall of Femmes. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.walloffemmes.org/