I love street art. At least I love the sort of street art that I love. There is something magical about seeing good art in unexpected places. It can cheer up a walk to the tram stop, or bring a smile to your face when on the way home with the shopping. For many years I lived in London’s Old Street area, where the formerly notorious, now acclaimed, Banksy did much of his early work.
I’ll never forget the ecstasy-faced police on a nearby railway bridge; or the white line of paint that ran along the street and down an alley to where a policeman, on hands and knees, was snorting it through a rolled-up banknote. Better still, the rat in Smithfield carrying a placard saying “Go back to bed”; or the gang of rats carrying a rocket launcher, stencilled onto the Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament.
I watched, saddened, as council contractors blasted that particular gem off the wall with a high pressure hose.
So, with that in mind, I’m not sure it’s in the nature of street art to be approved by, or done in partnership with those who are responsible for making sure the walls of civilisation are kept free of spray paint.
The anti-authority, illicit-verging-on-illegal nature of street art means it comes free from official approval, right? In The Hague there is an established relationship between street artists, the city authorities and local museums, The Hague Graffiti Platform; and also the Straat Expo, which is responsible for numerous street art projects around the city.
In exchange for 2000 square metres of wall space, the city hopes to prevent ‘illegal’ graffiti and ‘vandalism’. The aim being to make the city a “cleaner, safer and more colourful environment for residents”.
It seems to work – there is very little graffiti on city walls, trams or trains – and there are some brilliant pieces of street art dotted around the city at officially sanctioned spots. Much of the space given over to street artists is found on electricity sub-stations, and other city infrastructure, and is more-or-less permanent. Recently, however, a housing project near The Hague Market has provided a larger canvas for artists.
I was fortunate enough to be cycling past the area where several blocks of apartments have been demolished, ready for redevelopment. One, however, remains and is covered in street art – the work of Straat Expo. Even more fortunate, there were some people painting a new work onto the building.
Which is how I know that they contacted the housing association to ask if they could spray over the wooden boards in the windows of the condemned building; and how, because it proved to be so popular with local residents, they were given permission to spray art on to the whole building.
As we chatted it occurred to me that even though street art is at best temporary, spending time, energy and money creating art on walls that would literally be demolished in a few weeks was an extraordinary act of hopefulness. Either that or an act of artistic nihilism. Ironic, I suppose, that my photos preserve the illusion beyond its expiry date.