Recently, I hosted approximately two hundred school students on half a dozen street art tours across central Ōtautahi. It is one of the more satisfying parts of my work, engaging with young people and hearing their interpretations of the urban landscape and the signs of creativity found throughout.
It is always fascinating to see how young people respond to the ideas surrounding art in the streets, from large murals to rebellious graffiti and everything in between. Of course, there are different levels of engagement. As is to be expected, some students are understandably more interested in other distractions than the art around them: video games, Tik Tok trends and the analogue exertion of physical energy (all activities that can be coloured and informed by the urban landscape). But generally, there is a sense that these young people value the city as a space for play, for creativity, and ultimately, for the idea that they could contribute to the landscape, to leave their mark in some way as a sign of their presence.
Ultimately, this is the attraction of graffiti,a rebellious artistic subculture started and primarily sustained by young people. It is remarkable that early graffiti ‘writers’ (as they initially declared themselves) chose art as the energetic vessel for their declarations of existence, instead of simply heaving a brick through a window or setting fire to something. All this is not to say graffiti isn’t vandalism and illegal in many instances. It is defiantly and often declaratively so. But it is essentially a reflection of the environment around us, from advertising and ordinance signs to the emphasis placed on identity, branding and control, it reflects the visual and ideological profile we have created.
It is easy to feel invisible and lacking in agency as a young person, and there is less attachment to the rules of private ownership when you are excluded from such privilege. Graffiti writers recognise the power in altering the surrounding cityscape, a tactic that upsets authority while also providing a creative conceptual platform.
The ethics and morality of graffiti writing are not the main concern here. Instead, it provides the chance for reflection upon how young people see the environment around them as something to which they can contribute in various ways. Graffiti was born from the troubled environment of post-counter-cultural New York, a bankrupt city where opportunities narrowed for young people. Perhaps in this light, graffiti seems a proportionate response. By generating more discussion of the complexities of the urban landscape, we can reimagine how cities might operate and how that might alter our experiences of them. The example of urban art proves that the city is malleable, that it is a site for a more dynamic flow of information; for conversation rather than one-way instruction.
From the example of graffiti and street art, to initiatives such as the newly formed Urban Play Network and SCAPE Public Art’s Re:ACTIVATE programme, it is vital that the city is seen as a space where young people can feel engaged, where they see opportunity
Almost a decade ago, the post-quake environment bristled with the chance to contribute, the lack of ideas rather than the lack of means proved the biggest obstacle amidst the broken terrain. Today, by activating more spaces, more supported projects and more platforms for young people to be creative in our city, we can encourage more reflection on our relationship with Ōtautahi as we enter this new phase as a destination no longer defined by disaster. We have some fantastic placemakers from a variety of backgrounds in this city, let’s ensure we help encourage the next generation to emerge and help shape Ōtautahi.
See: Watch This Space - https://watchthisspace.org.nz A crowd- sourced map of street art locations past and present.
- The kids round here live just like shadows, a mural by Bols at The Boxed Quarter, draws on a Bruce Springsteen lyric to evoke the invisibility of youth.
- Wongi's Hide and Seek mural on Manchester Street suggests the importance of play as a way to connect with and activate place.