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From Urban Decay to Natural Beauty: the Shifting Contexts of Street Art


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By Dr Roxy Robinson & Rowena Harris

When we hear the words ‘street art’ what are the first impressions that surface in our minds? Vivid, masterly murals on mouldering garage-doors? Neglected corners of the metropolis, anointed with new life? The visual politics of Banksy and Obey – or ugly bus stop tags, on even uglier civic canvasses? Our impressions may not all be the same, but what usually unites them is their residence in the city.

You could be forgiven for seeing a universal truth in the broken windows theory. Where buildings are left to decay, so follows smashed glass, overgrown weeds: then graffiti. The message appears clear: “No one cares for this space.” But street art is, simply put, more complex than that. From political statement to vibrant art, you can’t tar all graffiti with the same brush.

Every town has its writing on the wall, but does each city have a style? How lenient the local authorities are surely influences the art, and in this way reveals much about a region’s culture and attitude to art. Perhaps it’s more apt to ask, then, what emerging street styles say about the city, but also – whether it always requires a metropolitan canvass? To explore this, we looked at street art in some traditional and unusual settings, where attitudes differ widely.

Reykjavík, Iceland

Formally, graffiti is illegal in Iceland. Pre-2008, street art was fairly ubiquitous around Reykjavík and attitudes were relaxed. As such, a major crackdown was enforced, which lead to the reduction of graffiti from 42,000 square metres of public space to 22,000 square metres. Even so, a vast amount of street art can be found throughout the city, most being epic murals and vibrant artworks. Permission appears to be easy to obtain — generally, it seems if you ask, you’ll get.


Wandering downtown Reyjavík is like an art tour. In spite of the crackdown on graffiti, vibrant and vivid street art crops up in hidden spots and plastered in plain sight. Whilst there are tags here and there, the vast majority of pieces are huge, bright, curious murals. In a city where you can barely wander fifteen minutes without coming across an intriguing sculpture, the vibe of the city is irreverent, pro-art, and joyful.


Leeds, UK

The UK has strict laws regarding graffiti. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 and Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 are zero-tolerance; given that Leeds council’s stance on graffiti is detailed on the same page as safely disposing of needles, the message is clear.


Although there are a few commissioned murals —most obviously on Call Lane and opposite the train station — Leeds has almost zero designated places to paint. It’s hard to tell whether the lack of bold pieces indicates that punishment in Leeds is harsher or whether there’s not enough support for the arts so as to cultivate it. Perhaps if Leeds had an iconic artist pave the way, street art might be different here. (Think: Banksy.)


Given the lack of permissible space, a quirky, word-based style has emerged — this is certainly apparent around LS6. Hyde Park wisdom can be found smattered over the endless red brick terraces. From the somewhat pretentious, “think outside the tesseract” to the visual pun “cigar & a [waffle]”, quick-witted and quick-to-spray slogans abound. Although not necessarily beautiful, the vibe is distinctly playful, amusing, and entertaining.

Oslo, Norway


The law in Norway is fairly harsh on graffiti. This is evident from the distinct lack of tags—penned or sprayed—around the city centre. Of course, no space is sacred: a few doorways and walls are claimed, but the volume of general graffiti is low compared to many places. Although supportive of the arts, notably sculpture, it generally seems as though graffiti is not a welcome artform here. To see Oslo’s writing on the wall, you have to go adventuring for it.


If you’re game for an epic walk, and a little bit of off-roading, you can follow the river from Lake Maridalsvannet to Oslo and discover hoards of hidden artwork. It’s not an official walk by any means, so if you want to get straight to real treasure, check out the underground art scene on Brenneriveien, namely at Blå and Hausmania. Apparently the authorities have tried countless times to have the graffiti there removed, only for the community to re-paint. The style of the art there is stunning, intriguing, and made all the more impressive for its defiance and hidden location.


Lowther Deer Park, Cumbria (UK): exploring a woodland context

Street art and the urban context seem so inseparable that you can easily assume that one is entirely dependent upon the other. Usually, this is the case, as disused buildings provide the ideal canvasses for the street artist. However, there aren’t always barriers to creating a street art installation in a rural location, even if a little more effort may be required. Though the effect is – as John Pearson’s work below testifies – a very different aesthetic:

Kendal Calling 2015

This piece was a live art installation within a new woodland area entitled Lost Eden, produced with arts organization and NPO Walk the Plank. The area was a new feature at the award-winning music festival Kendal Calling in July 2015, and drew thousands of festival-goers into the woods throughout the weekend.

The festival has, through ten years of promoting sellout shows, managed to garner a solid reputation for its music programme. Lost Eden, which was the venue for a host of new art pieces funded by the Arts Council England, indicates a new approach to programming is being taken by the promoters, which seeks to push the boundaries beyond its longstanding focus on music.

Kendal Calling 2015 - Thursday - AW-7

John Pearson’s piece was distinct from the other features in the space because it unfolded as the audience watched, and because it was in a completely contrasted setting: set among the trees, its home was thick woodland of the Lake District. We caught up with John to find out more about his experiences at the festival:

We’ve seen some great shots of the work you did at Kendal Calling this year. How did that come about?

“Ben Robinson saw me painting at Canal Mills Brandon Street Night Market in Leeds and approached me about doing something for Kendal Calling, which led onto me designing a series of logos for the Lost Eden area before producing the live art during the festival. Leeds based illustrators Bobbi Abbey and Mike Winnard came on board for the festival art, we regularly work alongside each other and collaborate when painting at events so it was a perfect opportunity for the three of us to work on a large scale piece in a really interesting location. Right from the start we wanted to create something that would complement the Lost Eden area and incorporate our three individual styles, so came up with the idea of creating a tribal shrine based on the story of the Carvetti – an Iron age tribe who were indigenous to the area”

What was it like painting in a woodland, festival environment, and how do you feel this affected the work?

“The woodland area of the festival had its own distinct atmosphere that was very different from the rest of the festival, which is why it seemed to be one of the most successful areas from the comments we were getting from the public. The intimacy, ongoing roaming performers and wide variety of art installations and small stages generated a sense of discovery for people encountering the area. For us to be part of that creative atmosphere and contribute to it with our work was incredible. We definitely fed off the environment in the woods and channeled that into what we were doing, even when we weren’t painting we spent most of our time at the Carvetti and Lost Stages because of the mix of acts performing gave a genuine feeling of excitement about what we might discover”

Do you think music festival audiences are appreciative of street art styles, and art in general?

“Absolutely, over the duration of the festival we had a steady stream of people not only sitting to watch us work but making the effort to come and speak to us about what we were doing, all of which had a genuine interest in finding out a little more about the art. It was refreshing entering into a dialogue with each and every one of them as they all came from such a wide variety of backgrounds with different levels of understanding and engagement with art culture. I think the festival environment allowed the public to draw parallels between the work we were creating and the musical artists that had brought many of them to the festival in the first place.

“It’s the expectation festival goers have of a performative aspect from the music and their engagement with it that has allowed a lot of people to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art we were creating, possibly because they could see it being produced in front of them over the weekend. One person spoke to us who was slightly in shock because he found himself sitting down to watch us paint, he said that normally he has no interest in art and that his girlfriend would have to ‘drag him around’ to galleries and events, but this was the first time that he had a genuine interest in art, much to his surprise. I think it’s the perfect environment for reaching out to new audiences much in the same way that street art engages people outside of traditional exhibition spaces, it allows for people to be presented with art without having any preconceptions”

What was the most memorable thing a festival goer said to you at Kendal Calling?

“There were a lot of instances in which we were all taken aback by some of the kind remarks people said to us. We had comments from a range of people including teachers speaking about engagement with their art classes, festival performers and vendors wanting to collaborate with us and people from other creative backgrounds who would make comparisons between what we were doing and their own practice. For example we spoke to one person who painted cars for a living, and was talking about processes and possible crossovers in approaches. The most memorable comments were from the families though, many of which kept returning on a daily basis to see the progress of the work with their children speaking about their love for art. On the last day one family was talking about what we were creating and how their daughter wanted to become an artist, to which Mike replied to her ‘you already are one’. You could see in her face that the comment really meant a lot to her, it wasn’t preceded with ‘when you grow up’ it was a statement of the accessibility of art to everyone regardless of age”

Your piece seemed to coincide with a story for the newly introduced Lost Eden area. How did you incorporate this into your work?

“The story surrounding the Carvetti Tribe formed the basis of our planning for the piece, rather than just having blank sheets of wood to draw on we wanted to create something with more sculptural elements that would be visually interesting before we even started the artwork but also sympathetic to the woodland environment. With the idea of the Tribe of the White Stag we wanted to create something that would act as a shrine or alter piece, so created the centerpiece of a wooden stags head and then added illustrations either side drawing influence from a lot of tribal and folk imagery. We had four tribal characters that came out with loose connections to the seasons, with runes for the Sun and Moon on either side of the main stag. It generated a lot of discussion from people about why the stag was so prevalent in the Lost Eden area and the themes of what we were trying to do in connection to it, so we felt like it was successful in bringing forward the story of the Carvetti Tribe to the festival goers. It really worked well with the other elements in the Lost Eden section as well, such as the various stag performers coming and interacting with us while we worked, and also as acting as a backdrop in the evening for the roaming performers”

What was the most challenging part of exhibiting work at the festival?

“We came across a few challenges mainly in the planning and installation, but nothing that really held us back. Dealing with the unpredictable weather was very touch and go because it was virtually impossible to paint outdoors for a prolonged period in the rain, but we managed to be lucky with the conditions. Because we were new to the festival we didn’t know what to expect from the audience, and how receptive they would be to our work, so planning for that was an unknown element. One thing that struck us was the amount of families that engaged with what we were doing, which is something we’d build on more in future because it was incredible to see how many people really wanted to join in and paint alongside us”

– and the best?

“Meeting people through the creation of the work was by far the best. Each and every person that took the time to come and speak to us, asked questions, gave feedback and wanted to see more of what we did really made it special. Not only the festival goers, but also the people working at the festival we encountered speaking about collaborations, sharing stories and adding to the whole creative atmosphere. It was a perfect platform for connecting to people, something that we’ve spoke about building on for future events where we increase the collaborative nature so it’s not just us painting for an audience, it’s an opportunity for people to really get a taste of creating art and hopefully leave them feeling inspired”

Kendal Calling 1

You can check out more of John Pearson’s artwork here:

Article by Dr Roxy Robinson & Row Mac