Alison Young: “Every piece of street art is proof that someone is interacting with the street and its surfaces”

Alison Young is one of the street art researchers I admire. It is not only her long career in the field but also her style to write – she has a way to describe her insights about street art and its surroundings in a very detailed and personal yet scientific manner.

alison young

What is it that interests you the most in street art?
There are a number of things that I love. And that’s probably why I’ve followed it and graffiti for so long, about 22 years and counting. First, because every piece of street art is proof that someone is interacting with the street and its surfaces. Someone is trying to have a political or aesthetic impact in the street. To me, that’s a kind of proof of life in the city! Second, because so many street artists really think hard about the work they place in the street and where they place it. So, the effect can be really interesting, in terms of framing, composition, colour, texture and so on. I’d include anything from a tag to a large-scale paste-up or mural in this, by the way. Third, it teaches me to appreciate what’s there when you see it. Street art is so ephemeral. It can disappear from one day to the next, so if I see something that I love, I try to appreciate it when it’s there, and I never assume it will last a long time. Finally, it means for me that cities are always changing – always the possibility of a new piece to discover…

How did you become a street art researcher?
Through travel. I visited Belfast in 1993 and was struck by the ways that people painted walls, pavements and other street structures in the colours of the sectarian conflict. It was my first realisation that urban environments could be altered to express a view. Soon after I visited San Francisco and saw the amazing murals in the Mission district – I realised that painting on walls was a really important part of preserving a culture and a heritage. And then soon after that, I moved to Melbourne, and lived in an area filled with political commentary on the walls. I decided to start documenting what was around me every day. And after that I got interested in graffiti too, and started interviewing people who were tagging and piecing on trains…

What are your favourite cities to photograph street art?
Well, Melbourne has always been one of my favourites. I feel very lucky to have lived amongst so much great art for so long (since 1995). I think that Melbourne’s geography has been a reason why it’s had such an intense street art scene and such a long-lasting graffiti scene. Being a bit distant from other major centres meant that people really focused hard on the city they live in. And as Melbourne’s scene grew, others came to visit and added to it… In terms of other cities: Berlin was amazing to visit, and London and New York are so globally and historically important that it’s always special to visit there and see what’s on the walls. A place that might surprise people is Tokyo. Many think that Japan has no graffiti or street art scene, but it does; it’s just a bit more hidden. Photographing graffiti or street art there always feels like revealing something that the mainstream culture would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

Describe your researcher’s bag. What do you carry with you when you go out to photograph and research street art?
I used to have a messenger bag, with tons of stuff in it, and a big camera. But I developed a bit of a lower back problem, and so now I have a smallish backpack. I try to carry only a small notebook and pen, a smartphone, wallet, water and (if I’m in Australia) sunscreen. But I’m fussy about these. I have a favourite brand of pen, notebook, backpack etc., and I tend to stick with these.

Doing street art research is a research process like in any other discipline. What stage of the street art research you find the most difficult one and why?
It used to be hard work to remember locations. Now geo-location (despite the surveillance uses of it) make it easier for researchers by geo-locating the images. As time goes on as a researcher you accumulate so many images that storage becomes a problem. I have close to 20,000 now. Sorting through them can be daunting. Originally my photos were in hard copy, and after a while I had to have them all scanned. The early digital photos also resulted in what are now tiny file. They seemed huge at the time, but now are miniscule!

In your book ‘Street art world’ (2016) is a chapter dedicated to walking the streets. You describe it in a beautiful way: “able to see textures up close, to walk away, turn and see a work from a distance, to lay your hand upon it and feel the underlying stone through the paper or paint” (p.92). What are the advantages of doing street art research using visual ethnography vs. analysing street art photographs from social media pictures?
I’m very interested in the atmospheres of a street or neighbourhood – not just looking at an image of the street, but being in the street and then making images of it. So, I’ll walk up and down a street several times, or return at different times of the time. Sometimes I return to a location after a lapse of time, like a year or so. Sometimes I’ll record images regularly over a long period and so on…

I’m trying, through these techniques, to get a sense of the shifting atmospheres within a street, to get beyond the limitations of a single photo. I also try to record other sensory dimensions (sounds, smells, tactile experiences). Does the ground crunch underfoot, because there’s broken glass? Can I smell discarded rubbish, or spray paint? What signage is there in the area? If you turn the corner does the traffic noise die away? I find a street to be a complex, and multi-layered, place, and all of this is about trying to do justice to that.

One of the most discussed issues at the moment is that does street art and graffiti belong in the museums and galleries. What do you think?
There are limits to what a gallery can do, but I think dismissing gallery-based art is too narrow a view. Museum and gallery exhibitions can serve important functions – introducing people to the art form, educating them about it. Maybe next time someone tags a wall near their house they won’t call the police, for example.

It’s also important if an artist is trying to make a living as an artist. I always feel it is not up to me to criticise the ways in which the validation of the mainstream art world might transform an artist’s life, through purchasing or exhibiting work. That said, the most interesting shows or installations of work show an acknowledgment of the gaps between street and gallery, and have tried to be creative or reflexive about the ways the works are displayed. There’s certainly nothing worse than the dull and empty feeling you get when looking at ‘street art’ in the form of a crappy stencil sprayed on a canvas and stuck on a gallery wall.

Who are the researchers in the field that you appreciate the most?
There are many: Jeff Ferrell and Jeffrey Ross in the US; Lachlan MacDowall and Kurt Iveson in Australia; Konstantinos Avramidis, Theo Kindynis, Sabina Andron and Susan Hansen in Britain; Peter Bengtsen, Emma Arnold, and Sam Merrill in Scandinavia… I’ve probably left people out, apologies!

Since street art is so trendy at the moment the number of street art researchers will probably grow too. What are your three advices for an investigator that wants to focus on street art research?
Protect your sources, so that confidentiality is taken care of. Research ethics really matter; don’t talk to the police. It’s important that artists can trust you.
Walk, don’t do this all online! Get out into the streets (and wear comfortable shoes!).
Make back-ups, store your photos properly. Remember, you might fall in love with street art, and you will end up with thousands of photos.

What is the most memorable moment you have had among doing street art research?
I’ve got two. One is visiting the Leake Street Tunnel after the first Cans Festival in 2008. Unbelievably fabulous art, a real high point. The other is visiting a squatted building in Berlin. Standing on a rooftop looking around, seeing the ways artists had written on rooftops, painted up and down walls, all around, as far as I could see.

Alison Young is a Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of Street Art World (2016), Street Art, Public City (2014), Street/Studio (2010) and Judging the Image (2005).

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