Map Quest: Street Artists’ Radical Visions of Public Space

Tiffany Jow Tiffany Jow

Like architecture, street art is embedded in its context. But in too many instances, entire walls have been removed and exhibited in a gallery setting, effectively obliterating the artwork’s relationship with place. Londoner Rafael Schacter, creative director of the two-year-old collaborative arts organization Approved by Pablo, wanted to investigate how graffiti and street art’s site-specificity engages with the built environment and public life. To do so, he forged a partnership with London cultural hub Somerset House and organized Mapping the City, an exhibition of work by 50 international street and graffiti artists including the likes of Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Swoon, and Aryz. It is the first show to take place in the building’s newly renovated West Wing, a former tax office that has been closed to the public for 150 years.

Ron English – “A South American Butterfly” (2014)

Conscientious of the problem of moving street art indoors, Schacter gave the artists an unrestricted brief: Map your city. “The work you’ll find in the exhibition is not graffiti or street art,” says Schacter, who holds a PhD in anthropology and has been studying street art for nearly a decade. “It is art by street artists — or more rightly, art by a group of artists whose main body of work has emerged from the public sphere.” None of the participants simply replicated their work for an indoor setting; rather, they used the space as an architectural canvas, fine-tuning skills honed on the street or re-examining why they put work on city walls in the first place.

Left: MOMO – “Tag Manhattan” (2013) [original project 2006]. Right: Swoon – “Bangkok” (2009–2012)

Spanning the literal to the fantastical, Mapping the City reveals its artists’ personal perceptions of the urban landscapes they know so well. Freestyle illustrator Shantell Martin tracks bicycle collisions across US cities in a data visualization that looks like a crash itself, while British artists Will Sweeney and Gold Peg offer striking distortions of London. American artist Swoon, known for her undulating paper-cut portraits, drew a woman with a body formed by Bangkok’s vernacular architecture.

Chu [Julian Pablo Manzelli] – “Buenos Aires” (2012)

Others take more a more straightforward approach: The French duo Les Frères Ripoulain plotted the sites of their work on a map of Rennes; Argentinian artist Chu painted a cartographic image brightened by his signature cartoon-like colors; Spanish artist Sixe Paredes made a diagram of Barcelona inscribed with otherworldly wedge-shaped characters. A video and map tracks New York artist MOMO’s attempt to make the largest tag in the world, by outfitting his bike with a paint-dripping device and drizzling his name across the entire island of Manhattan. Other pieces take the form of cement sandcastles, collages, a cloak, and a bright orange teepee.

Installation view of “Mapping the City”

Despite their diverse mediums, the objects in Mapping the City are united by the belief that public space should be accessible to everyone. The exhibition encourages visitors to look at their metropolises differently — to make them their own, and expose them to conversation and debate. “People who spend time in public space for purposes other than transit or consumption form an understanding of the city that is very unique,” Schacter says. Street and graffiti artists, who develop an intimate relationship with cities through subjective surveying, are on a perpetual quest for details others might overlook.

“They see cities as a place of play, exploration, and home,” Schacter continues. “In many ways they are the ultimate citizens: lovers of the city, and the individuals most-committed to the life of the city itself.”

Augustine Kofie – “Overcast Los Angeles” (2014)

Jurne – “Covalence” (2013)

Mapping the Cityis on view at the Somerset House until this Sunday, February 15.

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