Fostering Community with Street Art

Does street art foster a stronger sense of place?  What is the role of street art in creating community? These are some of the questions that I’ve asked myself when viewing street art/murals. I’ve been fascinated by the role of street art in urban placemaking since participating in a street art tour in Buenos Aires with Graffittimundo several years ago.

I had the opportunity to consider these questions a lot closer to home as part of a tour in support of the 2015 Forest for the Trees Festival.  In their words: “The festival brings together local and international artists in a collaborative setting and provides them with the freedom and resources to create artworks in environments that are freely accessible to the local community.”  The 2015 group of artists created some great new additions for the community including life-size rhino, conceived characters and some larger-than life family members. Some of the artists were wrapping up their work as we visited with them. 

Forest for the Trees is a non-profit project that was established in 2013 dedicated to the creation of contemporary public art in Portland. This was the third year of the Festival and the tour featured projects from 2015 and 2014. You’ve probably seen the work from the Festival around Portland, one example is the typology work by Zach Yarrington: a stylized photograph of his 2014 Festival entry, Everything is Everything is part of the UrbanLens Planning website. There are murals in Southeast, Northeast and downtown Portland.

The tour had excellent support in the form of dialog with the artists and information about the process for street art and the Festival provided by Gage Hamilton, FFTT and the founding directors of Portland Street Art Alliance: Tiffany Conklin and Tomas Valladaras. All three of them deserve a big thank you for their volunteer time associated with bringing attention and energy to the development of street art in Portland.

During the tour, I had the opportunity to hear directly from the artists on their inspirations for their murals (ecology, the environment, family connections, loved ones, children’s toyboxes) to name a few. Some of the artists were new to the scale of murals, and found it humbling (to scale up!) and others had painted a number of projects this scale. My impressions on the mural content ranged from friendly and approachable to thoughtful. I was not prepared for the emotional impact of Jade Rivera’s art. Artists included those based in Portland as well as artists from New Zealand, Peru and Japan, to name a few. A full list of the artists and a brief portfolio can be found here.

Back to my original question: Does the presence of street art lead to a stronger sense of place: I would say yes to this just based on anecdotal information that I received during the tour: In one instance, the art, from 2014’s Festival came under attack by graffiti. Residents that live near the art threatened to “carry bats” to protect the art from future damage. In another instance, the artists were inspired by the Belmont Goats and their ability to help foster community to include them in their mural.  In another instance, the patrons of the business adjacent to the art provided a name for the rhino—Bessie. So, in my mind, when the public starts to illustrate ownership of the art through protection and naming, that’s certainly creating community.

Don’t take my word for it: check out the great art using a walking/bicycling tour map developed by FFTT. Look for this blog to continue to cover this issue from different perspectives along the urban planning/land use continuum in future posts.