PARIS - In the New York City burough of Queens, 5 Pointz is considered a graffiti mecca. An open-air museum where urban artists can paint freely – but only for a couple more months.
5 Pointz is scheduled to be demolished next September, to make room for two 40-story high-rises with breathtaking views across the river of Manhattan. Swimming pool, yoga room, pool tables... Gentrification at its most luxurious.
The list of mythical urban art sites (mosaics, graffiti, stencils, collages...) that have been demolished keeps growing. Berlin's legendary Tacheles squat, a former mall occupied by artists for over 20 years, was closed last summer. The same thing happened in 2011 to Paris’ Piscine Molitor, an abandoned swimming pool complex nicknamed the "white ship" that became a popular spot among Parisian graffiti artists.
All these freewheeling artistic sites are doomed for the same reason: urban areas are the perfect candidates for lucrative real estate transactions.
Paris' Piscine Molitor - Photo: esyckr
Street art has always represented a dilemma for municipal authorities. On one hand, they make a point of fighting against graffiti-related "vandalism," while on the other hand encouraging "artistic" practices. The difference between vandalism and art is not always easy to tell...
In Paris’ 20th arrondissement, “the city created a specific training course for staff in charge of cleaning the walls, to teach them to distinguish between random tags and graffiti art," explains Bruno Julliard, deputy mayor in charge of culture. But most of the time, cities don’t bother with the distinction and simply ban what they consider to be an illegal appropriation of urban space. In France, spray-painting a wall is punished by a fine of up to 1,500 euros – more if the graffiti is on a public building. It costs cities a fortune to remove tags and street art works – 4.5 million euros a year in Paris.
Still, graffiti and street art are inseparable. Both are created in a "highly codified space" where "transgression is a driving force," explains Tarek Ben Yakhlef, an artist and author of one of the first books on graffiti in France, published in 1991. Urban art uses people’s emotions and imagination to convey universal messages.
"Street art must interact with the public in a natural, spontaneous and creative way," explains Nicholas Riggle, a philosophy PhD candidate at New York University writing a dissertation on the intersection of aesthetics and moral psychology. The forms of street art we know today are the legacy of different movements, including graffiti, which emerged in the 1960s in the United States.
Marginalized at first, it made its appearance on American subways in the 1970s, before arriving in Europe ten years later alongside hip hop music. Famous artists emerged in Paris: “Jerome Mesnager, Mosko et associes (Mosko and associates), les Musulmans fumants (the smoking Muslims), Miss. Tic or Blek le rat – who inspired Banksy. They were very present but at the same time buried in the mass of graffiti that invaded the city,” says Ben Yakhlef.
Photo: Banksy Facebook page
But little by little, the gentrification of urban areas gained momentum and "broke the social fabric," says graffiti artist Da Cruz. Luxurious buildings flourished everywhere, driving rent prices through the roof. The arrival of rich people caused the poorest residents to leave. Part of the street art scene denounced these urban transformations.
In Berlin, rents in the eastern part of the city have increased by 90% between 2000 and 2012, according to German newspaper Der Spiegel. The reason for these huge price hikes is “properties sold to an international clientele," says Bastian Lange, a consultant for the Berlin research center for urban development, Multiplicities.
A vibrant avant-garde culture
This is where street art comes into play: "It helped show that gentrification isn’t always a good thing that the neighborhood should accept without protesting," says Winifred Curran, associate professor of DePaul Chicago. A point of view shared by graffiti artist Da Cruz, a staunch defender of the working-class identity of Paris’ 19th arrondissement, which he had to leave five years ago. "When I was spray-painting, I tried to raise awareness, or at least to accompany the changes. What else, aside from color, can bring people together better? You can’t fight against bulldozers, but you can have an impact on what people are thinking before, while it’s happening and after."
Although street art mostly denounces gentrification, it also sometimes plays a role in it. Artists have extensively used poor neighborhoods as a space of expression. The problem is, when a neighborhood attracts artists, it quickly becomes trendy and popular because "it’s the sign of a vibrant avant-garde culture," says Nicholas Riggle. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a creative place? Against their will, by their mere presence, these artists have unwillingly transformed these neighborhoods ... And indeed the rich did flock to these neighborhoods – in Berlin, and New York’s Soho or Chelsea. "But there are also new arrivals who come with an open mind and a good energy," says Da Cruz.
Berlin's Tacheles squat - Photo: daskerst
This is why, at first, municipal authorities and real-estate developers are not opposed to artists taking over working-class districts. To the point of actually helping them financially, "provided they can attract a certain class of population," says Winifred Curran – allowing them to "sell" the neighborhood later.
"It’s the same problem all over the world. People tolerate us, people are happy for us to come in during this transition period before a neighborhood is rebuilt. We are the city’s colorful Band-Aids," says Da Cruz.
Street art is an efficient way to bring “cultural assets to a neighborhood that didn’t have any,” says Curran. But things can go south quite quickly. Authorities prefer to have a Guggenheim Museum instead of a graffiti squat. They are reticent to finance street art, but they change their mind when an artist becomes famous. The situation becomes schizophrenic when there are “laws that punish street art severely,” while at the same time “the cities commission artworks to these artists, museums expose them and galleries sell them,” says Ben Yahklef.
Other cities have understood, however, that they could use street art to their advantage. First in line is Berlin, which has become a major tourist destination in Europe. "We work for the system, let’s face it," Da Cruz admits, although he says he has "realized over the years the importance of explaining what we do." This is why last summer, together with fellow graffiti artists Marko 93 and Artof Popof, Da Cruz decided to organize street-art-themed walks in the working-class suburb of Pantin northeastern Paris.
Unfortunately, sources of funding are few and far between. "It plays a minor part in financing contemporary art," Julliard confesses. "When we do commission street art, we need to negotiate with local residents first. It is not always easy to get them to understand that we are talking about work of art – some are downright hostile."
But things are changing. In 2009, thanks to a petition, a giant rabbit painted by world-famous street artist ROA was saved from being erased from a wall in Hackney, northeast of London. And in 2015, a new project is slated for in central Paris: a 1,500 square meter space dedicated to hip-hop urban cultures to include recording studios, dance battles and street art.
Belgian street artist ROA's rabbit in Hackney - Photo: Ewan-M