SOCIAL REALITY, an installation by Ibrahim Mahama in Jamestown, Accra, Ghana. Photo by Ghanyobi Mantey, Kobe Subramaniam, and Accra Dot Alt.

The Resilience of Street Art

Street art—unsanctioned public murals, graffiti, sculptures—has often been treated as vandalism. But from Accra to Wellington, cities around the world are turning to street artists to help communities connect, to revitalize areas struggling with urban blight, and even to prepare for and recover from disaster, showcasing the role public art can play building resilience. Street art has grown so popular as a tool for galvanizing communities that cities are attempting to use public art in times of crisis and stress.

Governments and the public have a long, mixed relationship with street art, and it remains a complex, legally contradictory act. From sanctioned murals and the famous Mexican muralists of the 20th century to the work of internationally popular but controversial artists like BasquiatBanksy, and Shepard Fairey, street art has taken many forms. In recent years, the public and cities have begun to view street artists as enhancing urban spaces and neighborhoods, and included them in city processes and work as a result.

The Journey Beyond, by Nima Muhinmanchi, Inspired by Kofi Awoonor.

Resilience through Art

Artists are often among the first to respond to a disaster, contributing everything from grief-coping strategies to interactive ways to capture peoples’ stories of survival as part of the recovery process to communications tools to help people find the aid they need. A growing number of organized efforts are emerging to facilitate artists’ responses, including the following examples:

In Caracas, Venezuela, artists and institutions from around the city have united in the pursuit of “tactical urbanism,” using gardening, art, and music to repair and restore historical spaces, improve quality of life in poorer neighborhoods, and increase cross-community cohesion.

Japanese “atomic artist” collective Chin Pom stages interventions both to draw attention and provide expressive outlets to communities underserved by rescue workers and government in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. “I couldn’t accept,” one collective member says, “that art was powerless.

In 2013, the nonprofit Evacuteer installed public sculptures, called “evacuspots,” throughout New Orleans, USA, “to clearly mark the pick-up locations for the New Orleans City Assisted Evacuation plan.” The city government supported the project and includes evacuspots on its mandatory-evacuation plan webpage.

New York, USA nonprofit Groundswell, which “brings together artists, youth, and community organizations … as a tool for social change,” has been spearheading projects that use street art to connect communities and raise issue awareness for 15 years. Their work has addressed post-Sandy recovery, pedestrian traffic fatality, and street harassment.

StreetARToronto (StART), which works to integrate sanctioned graffiti into the urban space, is a municipal grant program that redirects at-risk youths into its public art projects designed to “promote and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in adding beauty and character.”

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts empowers “creative placemaking” efforts, among other things, to help strengthen the resilience of communities facing massive challenges like blight or repeated flooding.

Evacuteer “evacuspot” statue in New Orleans.

Some street artists worry that mainstreaming will make their work lose its bite. Yet, public art remains a robust form of protest, from Russian “pothole protesters” to Greek muralists, and international “ghost bikes.”

It may be this very ability to appeal to oppositional elements and underserved populations that endows street art with the power to communicate, build greater community cohesion, facilitate post-disaster recovery, and help a city become more resilient.