The recent collaboration between the Street Artist Stik and Dulwich Picture Gallery, as part of the Dulwich Festival, has brought a wave of current and less recent Stik Street Art to the virtual galleries of Google and You Tube.
Amid these works is one of multiple Stik People making a line along the yellow hoarding of a construction site and, seated on the pavement beneath, a homeless person. The form of the Stik People above and around this isolated figure suggests they have a dual role, both as concerned guardians and as conveyors of a message to passers by about the presence of this homeless person. Of course, Stik’s Street Art is open to different interpretations yet one of its most poignant expressions is in addressing the social condition of contemporary urban society.
Urban and cultural geographers research Graffiti and Street Art¹ as modes of representation in order to investigate broader urban conditions and experiences. For example, Street Art can be an expression of a gendered and racial politics of difference and identity, or a means of resisting the authoritarian city and producing differential forms of public space, or an articulation of ideology, place and transgression² . More recently, Street Art is examined as a conceptual tool for reading, writing and re-imagining the city³ . As a cultural geographer, I am particularly drawn to this latter approach as, in relation to Stik’s Street Art, it develops a spatial appreciation of his work in terms of presence and absence, in place and out of place, and conviviality, as well as an insight into the workings of the unconscious in urban space.
Spaces of presence and absence
Stik’s Street Art tackles the dialectical nature of presence and absence in relation to homelessness. In casting a blind eye to its social condition on our city streets government and society metes out a sense of absence. By contrast, Stik’s People assert presence. The presence of a Stik Person sleeping horizontally on the wall of a subway reminds us of the homeless person who sheltered beneath there, was moved on by the police, the walls around that space then vigorously guarded by surveillance cameras, enforcing a permanent absence and one less space in which to take refuge. The facial expressions and embodied forms of Stik’s People tell possible stories of past presences that are now absences.
I was reminded of this last week when I visited Dulwich Park and came by Stik’s mural on the wall of the bowling hut, an interpretation of Murillo’s three homeless boys . At the time of viewing this mural I was unaware of the painting that it reinterpreted yet something about the facial expressions of Stik’s figures and the gestures of their arms had me contemplating the possibility of this site as reflecting absences whether of the destitute who might have sheltered there or of childhood play there, our own childhoods or those of our children now grown up and moved on.
The idea of presence in relation to Stik’s People can also manifest a sense of place. Generally speaking Stik’s People are androgynous – we do not know their gender nor sexuality, they are deliberately ambiguous on this point and hence they transform what might be considered gendered space into anyone’s space and anyone’s city, inscribing on city space a right to presence regardless of age, race, class, gender, sexuality or religion.
However, exceptionally, in Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane in East London, Stik’s People on the door of a construction site are a woman dressed in a Niqab who is holding the hand of her companion. When visiting this site with Stik I recall him mentioning that the Muslim community has welcomed this piece of Street Art that they recognise as a sign of inclusiveness within their locality. But Stik also drew attention to the taller height of the Muslim woman than that of her companion, alluding to her empowerment in that relationship rather than subordination, and a possible challenge to established representations of Muslim women. The ambiguous form of this Muslim woman’s companion suggests they could be either male or female, it is left to the imagination of passers-by to decide.
On a recent walk in Brick Lane I noticed that building contractors had nailed on to these two Stik People a health and safety notice warning against unauthorised access. Rather than being in relation to the building site behind, the notice seemed to refer to this woman and her companion, suggesting perhaps that Stik’s People, from time to time, are the subjects of happenstance. Another instance of happenstance became apparent after the completion of one of Stik’s reinterpretations in Dulwich. Ingrid Beazley recalls the owners of an estate agency happily agreeing to a Stik reinterpretation on the outside wall of their offices. Only after this work was completed did Ingrid and Stik realise that this reinterpretation of a wealthy eighteenth century couple’s ownership of real estate had created a link by hazard with the estate agent on whose wall the reinterpretation was placed.
Spaces of the unconscious
Two minutes walk from my work location in Bloomsbury there are three Stik People on the rear wall of St Giles in-the-fields church. Two days ago when I was travelling on the top of a bus towards Piccadilly I saw their eyes peering out across that part of the cityscape. Indeed, currently, I am constantly coming by them when I walk in different streets of this location. They are an endearing trio but they too remind the passer-by of presence and absence.
Recently, when visiting the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London, I noticed an 1877 engraving entitled The Crawlers, a portrayal of poverty among women and children in the locality of the church of St Giles-in-the fields, and the terrible presence there of the workhouse. I don’t know if Stik is aware of this history in relation to the church wall on which he had painted his mural but, in my imagination, as a passer-by, the embodied form of his Stik People, their bearing, the lean of their heads and fretful eyes suggest a narrative relating to loss.
Beneath this Stik work is a small pond and two of his People peer into it, I wonder if their presence on this wall invokes the absence of countless lost spirits. The Cultural Geographer Steve Pile refers to there being something ‘unconscious’ about city life – ‘an emotional life lies at the heart of the city – and the city can become a strange, pleasurable, hostile place through our reactions to its buildings’. This is an important consideration in relation to Stik’s Street Art that in its deceptive innocence has the capacity to invoke uncanny elements of both the architecture and space that his Stik People inhabit.
But there is also the fact that in our everyday lives, as we walk the city and encounter its spaces, our unconscious meets or engages with the textures of the city. Whether the patina on its buildings, graffiti or street art, we bring to them elements of our unconscious through our own life experiences. I know that Stik’s People are important to my own sensibility and experience of the city because their form, expressiveness and sometimes vulnerability connect with that which urban space meant to me in the susceptible years of youth when the city was both a space of belonging and to be feared. There is a meeting then between the hidden histories of spaces in the city, the unconscious and Stik’s People that draws out meanings and emotions which form attachments with place.
In place and out of place
For nearly ten years the Human Geographer, Tim Cresswell, has put forward that words used by the media and authorities to describe Urban Art represent a ‘discourse of disorder’. The media and authorities have argued that Street Art is out of place and called for its removal, whilst the art establishment has labelled as crime any proposal to make it in place through inserting it into the spaces of high culture and the tradition of art history. Apart from some alliances with museums and galleries by the Street Artist Banksy , Stik’s current collaboration with Dulwich Picture Gallery appears to be a direct challenge to such ‘discourse of disorder’. His relationship with Dulwich Picture Gallery and with the proprietors of walls and garage doors in Dulwich has enabled his Stik People to be established and loved, indeed accepted as in place.
It is possible to develop such thinking about in place and out of place in relation to Stik’s Street Art because it corroborates with dissenting voices. His interpretation of the riots in London in the Autumn of 2011, of young people and fire, insists on concern for the most vulnerable of citizens and to re-establish them as in place when to a great extent authorities and wider society has viewed them as outcasts and out of place. Stik’s Street Art is therefore an alternative spatial-political stance that challenges such hegemony.
In listening to Stik during the guided walk in Dulwich I realised that there is yet a further interpretation of in place that is increasingly relevant to the work of all ‘street artists’. Until recently borough councils have exercised a national policy of zero tolerance towards Graffiti and Street Art, perceiving both as visible signs of disorder. Current austerity measures by local authorities have meant that they cannot afford the materials to remove Graffiti and Street Art which has led to a sense of that which was formerly considered as being out of place, by default, becoming in place. However, and certainly from Stik’s anti-capitalist perspective, as well as that of other ‘urban artists’, the down side to this is that in creative areas such as Hoxton and Hackney such Graffiti and Urban Art ‘are now viewed with the same enthusiasm by property speculators as by art collectors’, a warning then against Urban Art becoming a part of the gentrification of cities if it hasn’t already. On a recent Street Art walk with Stik, when questioning him on his feelings about his work becoming a symbol of gentrification, defaced or removed, he responded with a sense of the inevitability of all of these although on all the walks I have made with Stik, in terms of keeping fresh his Stik People, he is paternal and constantly mending or touching mending them.
Spaces of conviviality
In my browsing of Google I came across two photographs that express the convivial nature of Stik’s work. In one of them a young woman is standing against a wall lined with Stik People, two adults and a child; the child is holding onto the leg of its parent whilst the young woman on the outside of the wall is looking towards the three of them and smiling. As I view this photograph I can feel the warmth of that moment. The Stik Person closest to the young woman appears to be holding out an arm towards her as an expression of care.
In the other photograph a young man is also standing against a wall lined with Stik People and he shakes the hand of the Stik Person closest to him. The young man is smiling whilst the Stik People appear content and cordial. I am describing these moments of encounter under a heading ‘spaces of conviviality’ but they could also be described in terms of the geography of moments that are transformatory. They are about how we read and respond to the inscriptions on our city and create spaces of community and friendship, albeit momentarily; they are transformatory because the presence of Stik’s People and their embodied forms turn a fearful location into one of conviviality that is not of the kind invented by urban planners in order to market urban renewal or reinvent places through regeneration. The conviviality that I write of is such that in opening ourselves to the expressiveness of Stik’s People we are able to open ourselves to each other as community.
In this short essay I have outlined Street Art as a conceptual tool for reading, writing and re-imagining the city. In particular I have discussed Stik’s Street Art through different kinds of spatial relations to the city. In terms of developing this work there is room to examine Street Art as a movement beyond the white cube of the gallery, the place of Street Art in the suburb away from its ghettoisation in the city, Street Art as subverting dominant visual representations such as advertising and corporate images, Street Art as an avant garde movement.
The final word on Street Art should go to a writer who is intimately related to the genre, Cedar Lewisohn: ‘“Street art”, “graffiti”: in the end the name doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to put a cage around creativity. If we think about these multiple histories, taking place side by side and in succession, from the first forms of paint, simply made with mud, to the invention of aerosol spray paint, the overall impact that these people working outside of law have made on culture is immeasurable. Their art forms somehow manage to mix social activism, social outrage and creativity in often beautiful public gestures. It’s a perfect example of hybridity in constant flux.’
¹The discourse around the distinction between Street Art and Graffiti is extensive. Amid its commentators Dickens (2008:474) illustrates it as post-graffiti, the ‘tag’ of graffiti writing replacing ‘street logos’ and a shift from typographic to iconographic forms of inscription. This is described as ‘an alternative political stance to that expressed by graffiti writing, one that challenges the “antipathy towards corporate branding and creeping globalization” of the contemporary metropolis’. Lewisohn (2008:65) describes Street Art as ‘reflective of its creators’ political opinions and creative desires, and these change from country to country, even from district to district. Just as art in museums is a reflection of the cultures that produced it, street art reveals the hidden narrative of those who make it. [...] What graffiti shares with street art is a basic sense of appropriation: making the city your own by claiming the space.’ I have twice heard Stik distinguish between Street Art and Graffiti and am of the opinion that his belief in Street Art is represented by the perspectives both of Dickens and Lewisohn.
²Dickens, L., 2008, ‘Placing post-graffiti: the journey of the Peckham Rock,’ Cultural Geographies, Vol 15(4), pp471-496, p472
Cresswell, 1992, ‘The crucial “where” of graffiti: a geographical analysis of reactions to graffiti in New York’, Environment and Planning D Society and Space, Vol 10, pp329-344
Dickens, L., 2008, ‘Placing Post-graffiti: the journey of the Peckham Rock’, Cultural Geographies, Vol 15(4), pp471-496
Lewisohn, C., 2008, Street Art – The Graffiti Revolution, Millbank, London: Tate Publishing
Pile, S., 2002, ‘The Unknown City … or, an Urban Geography of What Lies Buried below the surface,’ in Borden, I., Kerr, J., Rendell, J., Pivaro, A., (ed), The Unknown City – Contesting Architecture and Social Space, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The Mit Press, pp263-279, p275
Jill Fenton, PhD (London)
Programme Director, University of Connecticut in London
Lecturer in Human Geography, International Foundation Programme, Queen Mary University of London