How Street Art Can Be Impactful … Essay
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Street Art by Agoch and Mandragora
The street art by Jorit Agoch and Leticia Mandragora on Bedford and 10th in Brooklyn, NY, convey two distinct images: Agoch's is of a Native American child's face. Above and to the right of this painting is a blue-faced woman painted by Mandragora. Both artists used spray cans to paint these pictures, which covered over the graffiti that was on the wall prior to their appearance. The wall is adjacent to a small building operated by L&S Auto Center Corp. The pictures act as a kind of oasis in otherwise unremarkable part of town. Graffiti lines the buildings of the street up and down 10th and the side streets Bedford and Driggs. People walk up and down the streets and the faces of the images appear to stare out serenely at the people of the city without commenting but making an expression of interest and self-worth all the same. The paintings manifest something lurking below the city's business exterior and urban squalor. As Agoch emphasizes on his Facebook page, his painting of the Native American child's face is a reflection not of a Native American but of a human and that we are all a part of the great, big human tribe.[footnoteRef:1] Mandragora's "blue woman" elaborates on this theme, indicating that the color of one's skin does not matter: whether one is brown or blue, what makes us human is the soul that is represented in the eyes of everyone. In these works of art, the soul is discernible in the characters' eyes, as both look directly at the viewer and challenge the viewer to look back and commune with them in a silent and transcendental act. [1: Jorit Agoch's Facebook page, accessed May 2, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/Jorit-AGOch-380958122050382/]
The story that these faces tell is one of calm introspection: they ask everyone who passes by to stop and stare at them and question them. "Who are you?" they seem to want the viewer to say. I paused and stopped and asked myself this same question outside the L&S Auto Center Corp and tried to reconcile the location of the pictures, their contextual setting, with the message that I felt each was giving. The faces of each could not have been more different -- and yet they were similar: the facial structure, the cheeks, the eyes, the nose and chin -- both had underneath the disparate colors and hair the same basic face. Their eyes moreover were so innocent and direct was their gaze that pictures were a challenge to the people of Brooklyn -- and yet the people of Brooklyn would have to leave their homes or their workplaces in order to see these works of art, unless they had business with the Auto Center.
The Native American's face was painted with dots and lines and it occurred to me that the blue woman's face could also be painted, that she could simply be wearing blue makeup and not really have blue skin. What was the significance of the blue color? I overheard one passerby comment to his friend that she looked like "Avatar" and his friend replied that it was "Jungle Book meets Avatar" on the wall. A third person entering the L&S Auto Center saw me standing there admiring the work and said, "Beautiful, isn't it?" before going inside. Thus the images provoked conflicting and contrasting sentiments from people who passed while I stood examining them and experiencing them in their natural setting. I felt the transience of the art works and understood what Bob Edelson noted in New American Street Art -- that such works have a temporary life span, which adds to their beauty and power: they are not made for the immortal indoors of air-conditioned museums.[footnoteRef:2] Here in the real world, in the streets of Brooklyn, these images engage with the elements, endure the sun and rain and snow, and battle back against the environment which seems so incongruous and at odds with them -- yet they live, perhaps for weeks, months, a year -- who knows? In that lifespan is a reflection and reminder of the lifespan of the human individuals they represent. In their presentation is a reminder of the fleeting nature of all life. Thus in the very genre of this art, in the very medium and expression of these works, is a sadness that is compelling in its own way -- that has nothing to do with politics but rather something to do with the humanity that touches everyone, the fact that we all must pay a debt, which is death, and that there is no earthly museum that can save us. This may or may not be disposable art, as Sutherland describes it,[footnoteRef:3] but it communicates a sense of the disposability of all things, of how nothing lasts. [2: Bob Edelson, New American Street Art: Beyond Graffitti (NY: Soho Books, 1998), 2.] [3: Adam Sutherland, Street Art (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2011), 3.]
These works suggest even more that art should not be kept and pent up in a museum where they are cut off from the world. These works are like actors on a stage, engaging with a new audience everyday, out on the street where the people come and go and pass and give life to them so long as they see them. The works are vitalized by their surroundings as strange as it may seem. The L&S Auto Center somehow gives life to these works, somehow manages to infuse a sense of reality into them, but butting up against them and not shying away of its own accord. The art images in turn shed down on the Auto Center some rays of humanity, reminding the center that there is more to life than cars, business, material possessions. The eyes of the images convey this aspect with their direct gaze and their penetrating force.
As Hein indicates, engaging with the art in its natural, organic setting helps to produce feelings and sensations that cannot be achieved in a museum proper.[footnoteRef:4] Out in the elements, beneath the clouded sky, among people who are going about their lives and who may or may not be looking at or even noticing the works of art, one is compelled to wonder at the meaning and significance of it all. Do these images instigate change in this community, in this section of 10th street, in this block beside L&S Auto? The answer at times seemed to be no -- but the longer the faces peered back at me and those who passed, the more I began to feel that there was a change occurring, as subtle as a gentle wind, blowing a new scent of spring across one's face. These images were impactful simply by being there -- by existing, no matter how long that existence might be. [4: Hilde Hein, Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently (NY: AltaMira Press, 2006), 8.]
Just as the graffiti across the street and down the block impacted the community by suggesting that nothing was sacred or that "tagging" wall space was a means of claiming one's place, the murals on the wall of the Native American boy and the blue-faced woman with their eyes staring so calmly at the diverse population around them suggested for a moment that communities could rise above their differences and be part of the "human tribe" that Agoch seemed to be suggesting we are all a part of. These images were like an invitation to be part of something more than our own lives, our own business, our own endeavors. These were enormous invitations to transcend our world in a spiritual way and reflect on the beauty that lies in each other and ourselves.
Thus while the impact could not perhaps be gauged in a quantitative manner, it could be assessed qualitatively. These images bespoke of a renewal in the heart of the city. A city that had been part of the one of the greatest tragedies in American history, the attack on the Twin Towers, in which thousands lost their lives. Nothing could bring them back and nothing could make it all right again. But these faces seemed to suggest that making it right did not matter -- that what mattered was that we all be able to look one another in the eye, without fear, without hatred and without prejudice. These images made an impact on Bedford and 10th by simply looking out from their place on the wall at the city and those who passed: they said, "We all must go, but don't go too fast. Stop and stare and communicate with me." That is what I did and others saw me acknowledging them and it served as an example in their own lives, a reminder that they too could come back if they so chose and communicate with the pictures too.
For at the heart of urban renewal is communication, the willingness to participate in the exchange of ideas, of hearts and minds.[footnoteRef:5] These… [END OF PREVIEW]
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