Language in street art. An Evaluation of How Language is used in Urban Intervention Art
An essay by Wilda Nilsson, student of the English Department at Stockholm University.
Through this essay, I will foremost focus on evaluating some of the urban intervention art found in Stockholm, Sweden. By looking closer at some of the works of art and interviewing artist and others within this underground community, I am hoping to find out how and why language is used in this art form. Obviously, this essay will be brief on the subject but hopefully it will lay a useful foundation and inspire others to further their studies in this unexplored field of socio linguistics.
Urban intervention art, usually called street art, is an art form with its roots in the 1970s graffiti culture. During the 1980s, graffitists in New York began to socialise with young talents at the School of Visual Arts. They acquired inspiration from each other and started to experiment with new materials and techniques and suddenly a new art form was born. It spread quickly to capital cities and other major towns across the world. It is illegal in Sweden, but several artists still claim their right to the public areas, such as concrete walls in tunnels and under bridges. According to these people; everybody have a right to express themselves through art, and the Government should not be the only ones to decide which art is good enough to be exhibited. A piece of work, made by one of the numerous underground artists, can be almost anything. From template paintings, stickers, papier-mâché figures to messages made of written words and sentences. These written messages are often misspelled or grammatically wrong with purpose. There are multiple reasons to why this kind of art is preformed and has become as widespread. Those reasons will be examined further below, with emphasis on how the Swedish, as well as the English languages are being used.
To begin with, there is one foremost reason to why the underground artists continue to put artwork on public walls. This is that the artists want to provide the citizens with a counter argument against the increasing commercialism in society nowadays. According to several street artists, commercials and ads from large companies are thrown at the inhabitants from every direction. There are billboards, hand-outs, posters and many other ways of manipulating the masses through commercial propaganda.It is almost impossible to shield oneself from being brainwashed says Hop Louie on his webpage. He is one of the artists that work under a pseudonym, and he feels that it is of utmost importance to provide the citizens with art and messages that make people think for themselves. In this case language has a central role; it can be easier for an art viewer to give an emotional response about a few words than analyzing one whole picture.
Therefore, artists provide them with raw material in shape of random words or puns placed strategically around town.
As mentioned above, the type and style of language used in street art is most often simple words or catch phrases. According to Hop Louie, street art is meant to be easy to understand and therefore academic words are seldom used. By using one simple expression, the artist makes it possible for everyone to think about something in particular. For example, Hop Louie once wrote; ”It’s better to eat porridge together than fillet of beef alone” (”Hellre äta gröt tillsammans än oxfilé ensam”). This message is as easy to understand as ”Are you also stressed out?” (Är du också stressed?) which could be found in Norra Länken highway (Karlbergstunneln Norra Länken). Another famous Swedish pseudonym artist is GuiltyGuilty. He or she is editing news bills from evening papers, creating new messages. When posting these on the walls of Stockholm, real unedited news bills are posted as well. This creates confusion and it is sometimes impossible to separate the real ones. With these actions, GuiltyGuilty wants to question what is considered valuable enough to put on the front page, and he/she leaves it up to the citizens to decide.
Concerning the fact of street art being illegal, there is of course one main nemesis of the street art fans. His name is Mikael Söderlund and works as Stockholm City Commissioner at the City Planning and Traffic Division. He has become the instigator of the new laws against vandalism. He has a deep conviction that street art is equal to vandalism such as demolishing cars. The street art artists and other supporters do not agree. Therefore, two artists; PRAO and Hop Louie, started to protest against this law through writing the words ” Micke/ Mikael Söderlund was here”on walls, benches and other places around Stockholm. Others who insist on decorating Stockholm are the crew ”Stickkontakt”. They are using their knitting talents to create ”knitty grafitti” and in some of the art they have even knitted in ”Mikael Söderlund was here”. Once more, language has been used in street art.
To sum up, language plays an important role in urban intervention art even though most artwork is made up by pictures. According to my sources there are three main areas in which language has a huge impact. First, it is a counter reaction against the increasing commercialism today. Secondly the artists want people to think for themselves and therefore provide them with art that are easy to understand. Finally, street art is used as a protest against certain political decisions. These three conclusions prove that language is indeed being used in street art, and that it has several functions.