How Does Street Art Reflect Culture?

Street art is an extension of the artist and their culture

While street art has only been seen somewhat favorably in the United States for some time, the medium has been pushing forward at a global scale in recent years. Regions across the world are beginning to turn their backs on these once-considered-vandals in order to allow artists to promote personal and cultural interests through guerrilla implementation of visual art. Crude tags aren’t what I’m talking about here: there are some incredibly precise, complex, and thought-provoking pieces I’ve come across that were more than worthy of a spot in a contemporary art museum. Interestingly enough, if they were transplanted to a traditional venue, much of their impact would be lost. Street art is one of the few mediums that can completely lose its impact depending on where it’s observed.

Over the years, I’ve come across some amazing works of art scattered across urban jungles around the world. As an American, it’s amazing to walk down the streets of other countries and admire street art that not only reflect the artist, but the interests and priorities of the culture. From urban beautification to encouraged self-expression, different cities promote this tradition for different reasons. From my experience, three excellent and unique locations for exploring are Tallinn, San Juan, and Amsterdam.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is an incredible place to visit. The portside capital of Estonia features a combination of new construction and old-world charm, with tight and winding streets. A focal point of the city is its marzipan, as colorful and impressive as the local murals (if not more so)! Artists in Tallinn understand the significance of their history and stray away from touching the long-standing icons of Estonian architecture.

The above pieces, painted on the edge of an abandoned train station, were more than appropriately distanced from the aforementioned neighborhoods, highlighting the contrast. Interestingly, while these murals are vibrant, detailed, and carefully done, they’re almost all displays of self-promotion. While Estonian street artists are given the freedom to openly create works of art in public spaces, they still focus on their image and building a personal brand. Is it driven by a desire to break out of the “small-time” Estonia and into more vibrant and profitable markets, or just wanting to be a big fish in a small pond? It’s hard to tell, but it’s easy to see that there’s a lot of original talent in the most unexpected places.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan features some of the most amazing murals I’ve seen in my travels, but where the street art really stands out is how the locals incorporate their work into the surrounding landscape. While it wasn’t inherently clear how local authorities viewed street artists, it was clear that a good number of proprietors were more than willing to “donate” space on their property to transform the neutral-colored architecture into vibrant displays of self-expression. Most, if not all pieces were complex murals featuring a combination of original characters overlaid on to of abstract geometry. The final effect is the feeling that San Juan is simply the epitome of tropical energy. The sense I got from the area is that color and energy comes from within, and it’s what gives San Juan its vibrance. Times will change, and so will self-expression. As long as culture is being reflected in the art, both can coincide peacefully.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Last, but certainly not least is Amsterdam. I’ve never been in a city that’s had such an amazing display of personal expression, or at least a display as masterfully crafted. As one would expect, Amsterdam is strangely and simultaneously tranquil, yet a sensory overload. Between the Anne Frank house, soothing canals, Van Gogh museum, endearing architecture, plentiful cannabis consumption, and red light district, it feels like a walking tour of the city evokes a new emotion at every turn. Better yet, every hundred or so feet is a new piece of street art: not just tags or scribbles for one to mark their territory, but truly stunning murals and thought-provoking written displays. Like the image above, the art found across the city isn’t simply colorful, but a product of genuine artistic ability. Composition, technique, and placement need to come together perfectly for many of these works to be as successful as they are.

Closing Thoughts

What do you think of all this? Are you a fan of street art, or see it as plain graffiti (it’s okay, I don’t judge)? No matter what your current views are, do me a favor: the next time you’re in an unfamiliar part of the world, take a second to explore and see how the locals express themselves. Ask yourself how it reflects their culture, freedoms, priorities, and interests. It may reveal more than you expect and who knows, maybe even help you develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the area. If you want, safely practice your own self-expression with industry leading Molotow paint markers. How would you represent your neighborhood? Your culture? Take a minute to consider what guides the world around you. Even if it’s just a walk around the block, there’s nothing quite like wandering and pondering.

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