To “whom” does pubic space “belong” to?
Interviews are about perspective and positionality. Therefore, I am coming into this interview with a background in psychology and education. In answering your question, public space technically belongs to all people and living organisms of the natural environment. While there are laws and public authorities that manage public spaces, they are communal, shared spaces that require care and collective responsibility to maintain.
Tagging και street art on or nearby preserved buildings, landmarks, antiquities, and works of public art: “vandalism”, disrespect”, reaction, expression?
Depending on the perspective one takes, the answer to this question can vary. From the perspective of adults, many are likely to respond that graffiti and street art does not belong on ancient/national monuments, buildings, and public/private property. After all, these are forms of art, some of which are national treasures. It’s like going to a museum and painting over a painting or statue. If we look at it from the perspective of young people who create taggings/street art, we are likely to understand a different dimension on this perspective. For some it may be a form of reactivity. For others it may a need for expression or connection. Graffiti is often a form of advocacy and activism too. Street artists with global notoriety, such as Bansky, for example, leave you with much food for thought about the social condition. Bansky’s metaphoric expression of social injustice through street art can hardly be viewed as vandalism or disrespectful, in the face of the real disrespect and vandalism of the human soul by the socioeconomic systems that impact us. Therefore, some graffiti can be considered as vandalism and some as a form of social expression, art and activism.
At the end of the day, who decides which graffiti will be erases and which will be preserved, and based on what criteria?
I’m not sure I have an ideal answer for this question; however, to manage graffiti, we must include young people in this and other civic decision- making processes, if we want to create a new social norm. One of the problems we face with youth is that they are excluded in every decision that affects their lives and therefore, they often respond/react to the world that doesn’t consider and include them. Including youth in the city councils in youth leadership teams would allow them to express their concerns, and learn how to shape the environment they live in, by solving problems in their communities, such as excessive graffiti. This is civic responsibility and engagement.
I believe aesthetics is one criterion for what kind of graffiti stays and what goes. Cities are being redesigned so that there is more harmony between people and the environment. As a part of that harmony, graffiti/street art can also be included in that vision. If the local authorities are responsible for managing graffiti, it would be beneficial to include youth in these decisions so that they are part of the solution. It creates accountability and new norms.
Could graffiti, with its two now quite distinct versions, με την street art and tagging, become a part of the (in) material heritage of a city what is more, of a “historic” city?
Every city is historic in its own sense, regardless of how far back it can be traced to ancient civilizations. Evolution has shaped our genes, physiology, cities, lifestyles and even forms of expression. Graffiti is a part of this evolution and an expression of modern culture since the 70’s, I believe. But it was also a form of expression in ancient civilizations too, like Ancient Greece and Rome and have even been found in prehistoric times in cave paintings and pictographs. Graffiti tells stories about culture and life through the ages.
Children, teenagers and graffiti. How do you propose this form of expression may be used in formal education, but also as a tool for their psychological and social maturity?
Education is the core of the problem and solution with respect to graffiti, but also all social phenomena. On a practical level, schools, neighbourhoods, cities can have special places for graffiti. Schools can teach about respect for public property, but also appreciation for public/historical treasures as a part of young people’s cultural identity. But the public domain must also respect youth. There is likely to be greater reciprocity in managing the “graffiti issue” when young people are co-partners in this goal.
Greed, corruption, social and educational injustices have impacted the quality of life for families and youth, their ability to thrive, excel and envision a future worth aiming for. In the face of an educational system that refuses to change, modernize and meet the 21st century needs of youth, in the face of political and economic systems that continue to disadvantage young people and their parents’ ability to care for them….graffiti seems like such an insignificant issue doesn’t it? But it isn’t. In essence, it is an expression of the social disrespect/disadvantage we have normalized and forced young people (all people) to accept. If you pay attention to the graffiti, much of it is about the ugliness of the world and the yearning for love, values, connection, reciprocity and beauty. If you want to understand the problems of a city /country, go and find the graffiti. It tells a great story of the strife and struggles of a society.
Therefore, the educational system needs to put youth at the centre of social change, employ their energy, creativity and ideas in solving social issues. Education must transition from memorizing information as the core skill to teaching youth to ask questions and apply their knowledge to real issues that improving their communities. This is the work that I have been doing through EIMAI—working with young people to create community projects that positively contribute to their communities, with Nobel Peace Laureates and other community leaders as role models for social change. Giving youth purpose will decrease the need for crime, rioting, and anti-social behaviours that have increased exponentially in the last 10 years. These behaviours are a cry for connection, justice, recognition and purpose. Graffiti has been the least damaging form of the expression of anger, even though sometimes it can be anti-aesthetic.
Therefore, schools and educational institutions can play a great role in educating youth about how to embed graffiti harmoniously within their city, with a city council that creates space for artistic forms of public expression with youth as protagonists in the decision-making processes and not antagonists. It’s collaboration. But no one has tried this solution for the “graffiti issue” or other issues facing our youth.
Please share with us your own “fat cap” story, a personal response to a particular graffiti.
In my observation of graffiti in several European cities, I observed that there were places and spaces for this type of art. In Barcelona, I observed graffiti walls, beautiful murals, clean buildings and monuments. This might not be case everywhere, however, but it was just an observation as a tourist. In East London, you can find entire buildings in tasteful graffiti art, harmonious with the city vibe. When a student took me down to the heart of Exarcheia one afternoon, concerned about the refugee and homeless situation, I was stunned. The graffiti and tagging everywhere, in my eyes reflected anger, abandonment, and despair. One of the public schools was covered top to bottom in so much graffiti and tagging, I would not have known this was a school. I thought youth go here? There were political offices a few meters down. I questioned….what is the school doing? What is the municipality doing? Has anyone gone in that school to speak with young people? Is no one concerned about the well being of youth? Because they sure have left messages everywhere that they are not well!!!! I was disappointed in the decades of leadership that abandoned this area (and other areas too!). With my students, we have painted spaces in orphanages, schools for special needs youth, refugee centres. We have planted trees and cleaned beaches, served food and donated goods to homeless shelters. We have collaborated on projects with disabled youth, refugee youth and other vulnerable youth in village communities.
These experiences were so powerful that I actually quit teaching and started an organization to engage young people from more communities that are thirsty to do, to know, to contribute. I am actually doing my PhD at the University of Oxford on the psychological empowerment of vulnerable young people through community work or service learning as it is also known. Learning to serve and serving to learn. This is how we combat every social issue, through education, by placing young people at the centre of social change, mentoring them and engaging them in community work. No one wants to burn their neighbourhood with Molotov cocktails when they are the ones taking care of it. When they learn to advocate for social justice issues in pro-social ways they will not need to do it in anti-social ways. We have abandoned our young people and their message is quite clear through their graffiti, bullying, rioting and growing crime. Where are the adults??!! Have you still not noticed?
Graffiti? It is truth through the eyes of youth!
Find out more about Ellen Froustis
Ellen Froustis is a DPhil. Education candidate at the University of Oxford, Department of Education. She has a Master’s of Education-Special Emphasis School Counselling and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology with training in Adlerian Therapy. Originally from the U.S., Ellen has been working in international educational institutions in Greece for 15+ years fulfilling the roles of School Counsellor, Director of College Counselling, IB Psychology Examiner and Adjunct University Psychology Instructor. As the founder and director of EIMAI, and regional director of Peace Jam Greece, she provides youth leadership development programs, bringing together youth with Nobel Peace Laureates and university students to create positive change in themselves and their communities. Ellen has served as General Secretary of the Greek Adlerian Psychological Association and Vice President of Habitat for Humanity, Greater Athens. Ellen’s work with youth and schools has been awarded by the Near East Council of Overseas Schools, The Loukoumi Make A Difference Foundation, The Noble Peace Laureate’s Billion Acts of Peace and Character.Org.