Street Subversion The Political Geography of Murals and Graffiti Flashcard

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Art has forever been a paramount form of communication. Stories told in artistic form have endured since the earliest existence of man through modern times.

The article “Street Subversion” by Timothy Drescher introduces the evolution of street art in San Francisco as a type of social and political barometer, each reflecting the issues and beliefs of the community of muralists. He contends that muralists and spray can artists tell a sophisticated story about San Francisco through their works.Drescher takes the reader through a chronological tour of two main areas of San Francisco which feature prominent neighborhood murals, noting that the art paralleled the political and social issues facing the various groups in San Francisco, California and even the entire United States. He maintains that these murals are an important part of history because they “addressed issues and explored perspectives that were rarely presented in the mass media” (4). For this reason, they become a form of strong community glue.

Each muralist is contributing to a larger political and social form of activism in which major groups of Americans are becoming aware. Primarily, early murals (from the 1930s to the 1960s ) reflect a type of “social realism” through the depiction of the subjects and to the style of the art. Realistic photos of pregnant field workers in California being sprayed with pesticides reflect the realistic aspect of this problem that had yet become part of the mass media hype.As the United States moved in to the mid 1960s and the 1970s, political activism became even more enhanced with issues such as the Vietnam war, civil rights, women’s liberation and the plight of poor workers. Muralists of different ethnic and political backgrounds rose to tell stories of their own struggles via this art form. Ironically, while the entire country was divided on these issues, the San Francisco neighborhood muralists showed incredible solidarity.

Muralists working on large projects maintained group consensus as a primary goal.Because the artists, who were of both genders and from various ethnic backgrounds, sought consistency in treatment from the government, they sought consistency in their murals. This consistency reflected the hope that one day the state and national leaders would be able to come together as well. Drescher reveals these ideas by examining the Balmy Alley district and the Clarion Alley district. The Balmy Alley district represented San Francisco’s Latino culture.

Thus, their murals reflected social issues which affected the Latino population, primarily, the “celebration of indigenous Central American cultures” or the “protest against the United States’ intervention in Central America” (7). The impact of this mural project was astounding and undoubtedly the block long mural attracted the attention of diverse ethnic tourists and leaders in the community. It sought to show the unity of diverse groups of individuals in a single political endeavor.Another similar project actually engaged both genders of a variety of ethnic backgrounds to collaborate on a mural which also represented a desire for social unity.

The Clarion Alley district differs greatly from Balmy Alley just as San Francisco itself is full of various ethnic clusters. This area was more socio-economically depressed but still had a story to tell through art. Its major project CAMP sought to gain respect for the diverse population which was primarily known for high levels of criminal activity.It proved that this was possible when the CAMP identifying sign, posted in the graffiti-laden area, never got tagged.

Because the lifestyle in this part of the city was different from the Balmy area, the style of art was also understandably different. Instead of the consistency desired by the social realists in reaching a social consensus on political issues, CAMP represented a more naturalistic, even expressionistic style. The artists did not agree on central themes or styles but created instead a montage of works which represented the variety of emotions of the artists and those they represented.In a way, this representation is more the modern feel of the city itself. Drescher refers to this attitude as creating a “mutually respectful intercommunicative community” (11).

Another interesting style that arose from CAMP was the spray can art which many people call graffiti, even though that may not always be accurate. Again, this type of art is highly individual, symbolic and despite the ignorance of some outside observers, usually contains a serious message, or one that can be interpreted in many ways.Examples include using clever puns to indicate the environmental waste of a nearby business. For example, a painting of the black and yellow danger signs strategically placed next to a Shell station can elicit just that message. Rearranging letters on billboards and other signs can also make an intelligent pun out of some advertisements. Examples include switching the Marlboro adds to Mal burro to show smoking’s harmful effects.

As this art from moves into contemporary times, the social issues that were so clearly defined with the realistic art style have become more and more muddy.As a result, modern artists now reject realism for these newer forms of art, such as symbolism, naturalism, and expressionism. The style of art mirrors the attitudes and issues of the San Francisco artists and residents. No matter the style, the art allows a conversation to take place among residents, one that is vital to a community and social harmony. In his article, Drescher captures the political and social tone of San Francisco through the years by focusing on its most outstanding characteristic – its art.

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