Art on the streets

Dr Susan Hansen is Chair of the Forensic Psychology Research Group and Convenor of the Visual Methods Group at Middlesex University. Phil Healey is Head of Visual Arts. Here they give an introduction to their upcoming symposium Art on the Streets: Creative Responses to the Urban Environment.

Street art and graffiti are no longer universally regarded as an unsightly criminal blight on our urban landscape. Indeed, communities have recently rallied together to try to protect and preserve existing works at threat of erasure, damage, or removal. This month saw the launch of a popular crowdfunding campaign by the Jewish Museum London to fund a new street art trail in Camden in honour of the late Amy Winehouse. These events mark a sea change in community attitudes towards these forms of formerly stigmatized urban creativity.

Photograph: Magda Sayeg

Our upcoming symposium on Creative Responses to the Urban Environment addresses this transitional moment in our changing urban environment. Held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and open to the public, this interdisciplinary symposium explores the diversity of creative responses to our urban landscape – from street art and graffiti to yarn bombing and urban photography. Participants will discuss our creative connections to, material engagements with, and affective responses to, our urban environment, and the relevance of contemporary urban interventions to a critical understanding of the lived city, with a particular focus on London in a global context. The symposium brings together leading international contemporary researchers, curators, artists and photographers in the field of urban creativity.

Women in a male-dominated field

Despite this apparent progression in community attitudes, female urban artists are even more under-represented than in other fields of contemporary art – a persistent disparity long noted by feminist artist collectives such as the Guerilla Girls, who will also visit London in early October. The barriers to participation are here not just structural and institutional, but are also linked to a series of potential and highly consequential in situ risks at the point of production. As the street artist ELLE recently pointed out, the deterrents include, “potential jail time, the humiliation of community service, destruction of property – or beautification, depending on your view – late nights, dark places, high climbs.”

In recognition of the work of women in this male-dominated field, North American contemporary urban artist Magda Sayeg will question the preconceived notions that viewers have about the role of street art and who does it – revealing the gender polarities at work. Sayeg engages in the reappropriation of what is traditionally considered craft decorative and feminine traditions, placing them in the ‘masculine’ sphere of urban art. In a recent mobile London-based installation, Sayeg covered a double decker bus with knitted material.

Photograph: Magda Sayeg

From the streets to the gallery

London-based curator Olly Walker will ask the provocative question of whether London is losing its long established place as the global center of street art. Once seen as the most vibrant and art rich city in the world, Walker argues that London has been left behind and now is struggling to find investment, organization and invention to gain walls and space to paint, thus struggling to attract the best artists and interact with local communities.

Street art is increasingly to be found not just on the streets but as ‘urban art’ within a gallery context. German Art Historian Ulrich Blanché will question what happens when Street Artists become Urban Artists when they exhibit in a gallery rather than on the street. He also explores the different kinds of viewers of Street Art versus urban “gallery art.” Blanché presents a detailed analysis of the artistic strategies used by artists who work between the street and the gallery.

London-based scholar Sabina Andron will present a novel argument – that graffiti may become a force of urban regeneration, rather than degeneration. Using repeated photographic documentation of the Leake Street Tunnel area, Sabina illustrates the surprisingly sociable impact of graffiti writing.

Photograph: Sabina Andron


Susan Hansen will examine the transformation of public space that occurred after Banksy’s Slave Labour was cut from a wall in North London, transported to Miami and listed for auction. This act provided the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a visual dialogue, which transformed this otherwise apparently unremarkable London side street into an arena for aesthetic protest and critical social commentary.

Urban photography

Phil Healey will discuss the urban documentary photographic work in his Shopocalypse series. This work focuses on the collapse in the numbers of independent shops along the high streets in London. He says, “the portraits of buildings in the series tell a story, the images symbolise how important parts of our communities can be swept away by the winds of change if we as a society don’t value them or understand their value to us.”

Photograph: Phil Healey

Visiting Australian scholar Panizza Allmark will talk about her urban photographic work, which focuses on the walkways within shopping malls. These spaces could be described as the new High Street, but undercover and intensified. Panizza’s compelling photography conveys the spectacle in shopping malls which follows the Surrealist tradition of ‘making familiar the strange and the strange familiar’.

London-based urban photographer and academic Paul Halliday will question how theories of urban change influence the ways in which an artist approaches the subject of locale. His work problematizes ideas of documentary truth, drawing on a critique of objectivity, subjectivity and the autobiographical. Through this project, Paul questions notions of memory, eventfulness and the archive.

This timely symposium will explore London’s role as a global city in the context of street art and graffiti, and whether the capital is still a leader, or has become a follower, in the development of innovations and new forms of expression. We anticipate a lively discussion of the impact of both licit and illicit forms of contemporary urban art on our culture, society and freedom of expression.

Art on the Streets: Creative Responses to the Urban Environment takes place on Monday 10 October at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

For more information, contact Susan Hansen or Phil Healey.

Science & technology

Bowie lands on wall where a Banksy was

Dr Susan Hansen

Dr Susan Hansen is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Chair of the Forensic Psychology Research Group at Middlesex University. Following the recent appearance of a David Bowie painting on a wall in North London, she discusses her study of graffiti and street art’s existence within a field of social interaction.

Last Saturday, a painting depicting the late David Bowie – in iconic 1970s costume from his Aladdin Sane tour – appeared on a wall in North London. The intricately stenciled piece, entitled ‘I would be your slave’ is by London-based Chicago-born street artist Pegasus, who has a reputation for delivering timely commemorative works. A small stenciled work featuring the late Cilla Black is on a wall less than a mile from Bowie and Pegasus also stenciled the late Amy Winehouse running alongside Camden Lock – a painting that was first whitewashed over, then repainted and ‘opened’ by Winehouse’s mother.

The North London wall in question (on the side of a Poundland discount store on Whymark Avenue in Turnpike Lane) has long been popular with street artists and graffiti writers, and was the original site of Banksy’s (2012) ‘Slave Labour’, which was famously cut off the wall without notice for private auction in February, 2013. At the time, community protests at the ‘theft’ of this work were initially successful and ‘Slave Labour’ was withdrawn from auction in Miami, only to surface in London several months later, where it was sold for £750,000.

Whymark Avenue, London. January 2016 Photograph © Susan Hansen
Whymark Avenue, London, January 2016 © Susan Hansen

The removal of street art from community walls for private auction is a morally problematic yet currently legal action. My research examines community reactions to the removal of street art for private auction. I’ve found that a new set of urban moral codes is being used to position street art as a valuable community asset worth preserving, rather than as an index of crime and social decay that should be painted over.

Whymark Avenue, London. May 2014 – April 2015. Photographs © Susan Hansen
Whymark Avenue, London, May 2014–April 2015 © Susan Hansen

While graffiti is often seen as a sign of urban degeneration and social problems, street art is commonly viewed as an index of urban regeneration and gentrification. Islington Council (2014) warns that, “graffiti can be the catalyst for a downward spiral of neglect … and encourage other more serious criminal activity”. Even the Turnpike Art Group, the community art organisation responsible for facilitating Pegasus’ timely tribute, claimed that the wall had “slipped into urban decay” and was a space that had, post the removal of Banksy’s work, “lost its soul”.

Whymark Avenue, London. August 2015 Photographs © Veronica Bailey.
Whymark Avenue, London, August 2015 © Veronica Bailey

Such aesthetic socio-moral judgments are based on long-held associations between graffiti and criminal activity, as a visible index of social deprivation and urban decay, and as a form of abjection and territory marking akin to public urination, as dirt or filth, or matter out of place. This discourse of disorder is grounded in graffiti’s transgression of the authorities’ more regulated visions of the city. As such, street art and graffiti offer a visible challenge to our notions of public and private space, and to the rights of property owners and other agents to alter our shared urban environment.

I have been documenting the North London wall now adorned by Bowie since August 2012. I use repeat photography to study street art and graffiti as visual dialogue. By capturing both recognisably ‘artistic’ street art, and visually ‘offensive’ graffiti tags, I aim to study graffiti and street art’s existence within a field of social interaction – as a form of conversation on urban walls that are constantly changing. This approach departs from other research methods in that it is not concerned with the analysis of decontextualised individual photographs of street art or graffiti – of the kind commonly found in glossy coffee table books and street art websites. The visual method I call ‘longitudinal photo-documentation’ – while incredibly time-consuming – is powerful in that the visual data it yields can make the ongoing dialogue among artists, writers and community members uniquely visible to researchers.

For more on the installation of ‘I would be your slave’ visit:

For more on Susan’s research see:

Hansen, S. (2015) “Pleasure stolen from the poor”: Community discourse on the ‘theft’ of a Banksy. Crime, Media & Culture. DOI: 10.1177/1741659015612880

Hansen, S. & Flynn, D. (2015) ‘This is not a Banksy!’: street art as aesthetic protest. Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture. DOI:10.1080/10304312.2015.1073685

Hansen, S. & Flynn, D. (2015) Longitudinal Photo-documentation: Recording Living Walls. Journal of Urban Creativity & Street Art, 1(1): 26-31.