Murals, graffiti, posters and sculptures make a city come alive. They become attractions, a mark of home. (Photos by Tabitha Wechter/SUNY-ESF)
Street art’s contributions to perception of place
What creates a sense of place? How does the built environment around us shape our identity or contribute to culture? Art has always been an answer. Murals, graffiti, posters and sculptures make a city come alive. They become attractions, a mark of home. Because of their significance, the censorship and hierarchy of street art have heavy implications as well as power to change the dynamic nature of a city.
These images are taken in several different neighborhoods in Syracuse, N.Y., including the Near West Side, the South Side, and Downtown areas. The purpose of this is to create a visual display of what kind of art is acceptable in these areas, and to use these differences to unpack the varying privileges between these neighborhoods.
Depicted is the wall of an abandoned building in the Near West Side of Syracuse, N.Y. This neighborhood is an area of concentrated poverty and racial disparity, caused by the history of the city’s urban planning. According to CNY Fair Housing, these neighborhoods were shaped by the racist practice of redlining, as well as the construction of the Interstate 81 viaduct, which cuts through the city and divides the neighborhoods based on socioeconomic status and race (Muñoz 2020). Redlining prevented families and individuals in this neighborhood from securing mortgages and loans, a blatant act of racial discrimination. This building stands out among Syracuse’s 1,800 abandoned buildings because of the vibrant art covering every available area. What’s unique about this site is the legality of this graffiti. A battle was fought for the transformation of this building, resulting in it being the only site in the city that allows graffiti. Before this practice was legal, the artists were stereotyped as vandals and criminals.However, with support from the residents, this space was dedicated to acts of self expression and community beautification. (Ibrahim 2018). This building now adds color, depth and identity to the Near West Side. This is crucial as it symbolizes a resilience against the city’s systemic neglect.
This mural, captured at the same site, contrasts the most from any other I was able to find. It’s not done in the traditional graffiti style of stencils, bold lettering/colors, or signatures. The tones are unique and there’s no obvious connection between the figures painted. The characters displayed here are abstract and non-conforming. Depending on the viewer, this could either be appreciated or cataloged as disturbing. Personally, I believe the design choices and creation of eccentric beings are a symbol of creativity and an act of pure expression. It appears to be done by the same artist, but the lack of unity contrasts with the commissioned murals found in wealthier or more commercial areas of the city.
According to the city’s Public Art Ordinance, any public art must require a formal application and be reviewed by an official committee before it is permitted. The formation of this committee is to facilitate art in the city, but by requiring approval, the type and location permitted becomes limited and exclusionary. The committee is made up of only eleven members, therefore diversity is crucial in order to allow a multicultural, decentralized scope. Incorporating art into the city is well intended, but poses a risk of a particular type of gentrification, known as artwashing.
Artwashing occurs when graffiti or murals are commissioned by the city in an attempt of beautification. This in turn attracts wealthier individuals to a city, who may be chasing a visual aesthetic or be drawn in by a sense of curated culture. An increase of new renters or homeowners to a city can pose dangerous risks to long term residents. Art can improve the status of real estate, resulting in an increase in property taxes and values. Newcomers may be able to afford this cost, while current residents may be forced out. This displacement is dangerous, as it is rooted in racial inequalities. While the process of shaping communities and restricting loans is now illegal, the implications of this redlining have been long lasting. According to census data from 2017, 35% of Syracuse’s population lived below the poverty line (Mapping the Food Environment in Syracuse, New York 2017). This income inequality is disproportionally observed in redlined communities.
Pictured above is a commissioned mural on Clinton Street. This mural is located in the Downtown neighborhood. It’s in close proximity to businesses, restaurants, and public transportation. The surrounding area also includes Forman Park, historical Archbold Stadium and a Veterans Memorial. This, along with the surrounding expensive apartments in the Downtown area contrast with the lower income neighborhood of the West Side. The type of art displayed in the streets, graffiti versus commissioned murals, may be an indicator of status or urban investment.
I chose to include this in my photo essay because of the candid shot of people gathered around to inspect the art. This makes me wonder about the implications of tourists to these street art attractions. Increasing the number of visitors to a location for art will surely boost the local economy. How might this impact the property values of surrounding homes?
Art that is criminalized, censored or permitted is proof of the history of the area. This is a complex issue, as street art in itself is not dangerous. It encourages beautification, allows for self expression and creates a sense of identity. The problems involved are rooted deeper than the paint on the walls. In order to maintain the true culture of a neighborhood, the art of local residents should be encouraged and permitted. Gentrification poses a risk when outside influences get a larger say in what should be displayed, as long term residents will end up bearing the burden if the end result is artwashing.
These photos were captured in Kirk Park in the South Side of Syracuse. Like the Near West Side, this neighborhood was also shaped through redlining, and therefore exemplifies racial disparity and income inequality. The community center and pool house are both covered in murals. The murals depict a sense of pride and place in the community. This is evidence of organization and public participation. The coordination of colors, patterns, and the representation of a sports team are proof of this. The inclusion of this art fosters a feeling of community. It keeps the park well maintained and visited. The community center itself serves as an attraction. Because of the local identity established when looking at the art, it can be claimed that this art properly serves the neighborhood, rather than just appealing to the local government and city officials.
This is a close-up shot of another mural in Kirk Park. Instead of paint, this mural is made up of clay/stone. The etchings included were submitted by children in the community. Imagine walking through a park, and seeing your own handwriting in an engaging, public display. This helps curate a sense of pride, familiarity and a feeling of being at home. This mural attempts to cover large issues from the perspectives of young students. One example reads, “Peace in the Park”, written on falling leaves. One rather striking inclusion reads, “When struggling with all earthly strife seek answers on the Tree of Life”. These submissions depicted on the wall are proof that community, culture and spirituality serve important roles in art.
Public participation should be encouraged in murals and other forms of art. The example of Kirk Park in Syracuse’s South Side is an example of how this participation can amplify local, diverse voices while creating a beautiful display.
This is an act of limiting self expression and censorship by the city. Doing this continues the criminalization of graffiti artists. It poses the question, what kind of art is allowed? And where can it be displayed? The answers to these questions have strong implications as to how much wealth a neighborhood has, as well as how much community involvement is allowed.
Public art has implications that contribute to the establishment of a complex issue. Stigmas and stereotypes can hinder the validity and legality of graffiti, while the processes of approving and commissioning murals can lead to gentrification. The challenge urban spaces face today is finding a balance between these extremes that allows art to foster identity and pride. One approach is to allow legal spaces for graffiti, such as the abandoned building in the Near Westside. This way, the reputation of graffiti artists can be improved and complex paintings of community significance be created. Legal spaces allow everyone to be artists, not just those hired and approved by a committee. This also counters the risk of artwashing, and therefore reduces the chance of displacement, which is a threat that has historically loomed over the residents of Syracuse.