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What’s Graffiti & Street Art got to do with it?

If you are like most people, you drive or walk around the city focused on getting to your next destination. If you are driving hopefully you pay attention to other vehicles on the road, the traffic signs and lights, and the pedestrians who attempt to cross the road. If you are walking sometimes you multitask, with your eyes glued to your smart phone, trying to avoid others who are walking towards you and being careful not to bump into them. At other times you are daydreaming, thinking of a vacation you should take or the work you haven’t done. You get my point. Unless you’re a “flaneur” and wander the streets to take in its sights and smells, and look at interesting people walking by, you’re distracted and miss lots of stuff. For good reasons, you may have chosen to be oblivious to the vast external world around you.

In many ways ignoring what’s going on around you is efficient. We are constantly bombarded by lots of information (e.g., visual, auditory, olfactory, etc.) that tax our ability to process it all. We need to quickly and efficiently make sense of immediate situations to determine what information is important and what can be ignored. We also have limited attention spans, no doubt related to our level of interest, motivation, and urgency. This largely unconscious process means that we are missing many social and cultural messages directed at us.

The notion that we ignore all sorts of information that the urban environment bombards us with has been identified by many keen observers of human behavior. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, for example, argued that people have become “numb to their surroundings [and] view things in a hazy muted way.”

Graffiti and Street Art, one of the most notable aspects of street culture, and one of the most important art movements in the post-modern world we live in is one of those aspects of urban environments, that many people tend to ignore. Unless you are a graffiti or street art aficionado, or your property has been recently tagged you are bound to ignore it. Again, there are several reasons why this occurs. Graffiti and street art are ubiquitous. In every large city, if you care to look, and you don’t have to go very far, you will find graffiti and street art. In some cities like New York, London, or Paris this phenomenon is omnipresent.

Just like lots of things, we can probably function fine without really noticing or understanding graffiti and street art, but if we want a richer urban experience, and have some measure of control over it, it makes sense to learn a little about the nuances of these phenomena. I’m not talking about the ability to rattle off a bunch of names of infamous Graffiti and Street Artists, I’m referring to the ability to distinguish among different types, motivations for people engaging in Graffiti and Street Art, and what are the numerous reactions.

Why is this important? If we do not understand graffiti and street art, we may witness or be subjected to constant battles between those who engage in this activity and those who seek to control it, but not be able to do anything about it.

So what? Under our noses, a subterranean battle over public space is taking place for dominance, notoriety, and recognition by those who engage in graffiti and street art, and control by forces that want to eliminate, minimize or redirect this activity. Again, So what? It’s important to develop a modicum of graffiti/street literacy if you want to better understand and maybe even have some sort of say over the visual landscape that you are exposed to on a daily basis. It’s important to understand the basics such as definitions, some of the major players, and here I am not simply talking about Banksy or Sheppard Fairy. There are web sites and exhibits that you can visit, and articles and books you can read. Better still most of this information is free or can be accessed at minimal cost.

Why? Understanding Graffiti and Street Art enhances your knowledge of contemporary urban and street culture – art is not just the stuff in museums; learning to appreciate graffiti and street art can change your view of the world, give new perspectives, expand your imagination, affect your well-being by enervating you, helping you to calm down, make you nostalgic, or bring a smile to your face. In short, it can make you feel alive and part of a community of people who share similar values, but also when they may have different viewpoints. Immersing yourself in this way gives you a sense of ownership, you live here, this is your city, you care for it, and eventually you’ll protect it and help it grow.

As note French Philosopher Henri Lefevre suggested (and echoed by people like Jane Jacobs, and David Harvey), we have a right to the city beyond the commodification engaged in by large monied interests (e.g., typically large powerful corporations). He said that over time the city will support the interests of capitalism and that this will dominate and rule our lives versus the other way round. Thus, if you care about the quality of your built urban environment, it is not only the duty and responsibility of local urban governments to protect the city, to ensure its sidewalks and pedestrian walkways, its open spaces, but it is first and foremost residents responsibility to ensure that this is done in their best interests. Graffiti and street art and other important kinds of urban art are all part of this experience. Urbanites need to get involved in shaping these outcomes and this starts with understanding what you see, feel and experience and not operating like you are immune to the built environment.

Street Culture, Social Distancing, Masks, and COVID-19

The appearance of COVID-19 in the United States and elsewhere has changed most people’s lives. We’ve seen and experienced significant disruptions in many sectors in society from transportation to education, to public safety.

One of the most noticeable differences has been a decrease in the number of people who are either driving or walking. Some cities and neighborhoods have resembled ghost towns. For example, a month ago a colleague sent me a video of her walking through the streets of Venice. During this 4 minute clip she did not encounter a single person, something unheard of even on the rare occasions when it snows.

No doubt the main reason pedestrians stay away from the streets is fear of contracting the corona virus from someone else. Alternatively, jurisdictions passed stay at home/shelter in place orders with fines dispensed to people who were caught outside without a legitimate reason (i.e., purchasing food, medicine, getting some exercise and/or walking your dog).

But now that some of these orders have been partially or totally lifted, an inability or lack of desire by law enforcement to enforce the orders, the fact that the weather is nicer or more likely cabin fever, it is making it increasingly difficult for urban dwellers not to spend some time outside. And when you see people sunbathing in public parks and walking along the beach, it’s tempting to join them. In my home town of Washington DC, for instance, this past weekend I observed numerous people hanging out on park benches in Dupont Circle, and nearby Logan Circle looked like party central. Few people, including the U.S. Park police, wore masks. Meanwhile up in Kalorama, Adams Morgan, and Mount Pleasant failure to wear a mask seemed an exception rather than the rule.

Even though the weather has improved, it does not mean that the virus has gone away and that you can still not get it from face to face contact with others. So walking around unprotected does not seem the most prudent way to combat a lethal killer.

To provide a measure of personal protection from being infected by the virus, the public has been advised to social distance and some medical experts have also suggested that they wear masks. This last approach has been selectively adopted by some retail establishments, transportation modalities, and cities. Some jurisdictions have even closed a select number of city streets, thereby creating wider sidewalks and enabling greater social distancing. Most cities, however, have not taken this approach.

Some people have embraced face mask culture. They have moved beyond wearing the drab blue surgical masks, or black bicycle ones, and either bought or created their own unique masks that showcase their creativeness. Meanwhile, well-meaning social commentators have opined about the increased risk to personal safety that young African-American males might encounter if they wear masks in public.

But still there are copious other people who ignore this advice and refuse to wear masks. In my neighborhood there is no one demographic who fail to wear masks. In the middle ground some bike riders wear masks and others who don’t. There are some joggers who do and those that don’t. Then again there are people who walk the street without their masks on, but dangling from their neck.

People walking along the street without masks and who fail to keep at least six feet away do so for a variety of reasons. But now that we have a pandemic and numerous people fail to wear masks, walking along city streets is akin to taking your life in your own hands. In some respects it’s like walking through a neighborhood, where you know almost everyone is packing a gun. Meanwhile there is a serious game of chicken that you are forced to play walking along the city street. Few if any of the non-mask wearing public will inconvenience themselves by moving out of the way.

This poses a problem to the people who are wearing masks and engage in social distancing. What should the mask wearing public do every time they see someone without a mask and/ or coming closer than six feet to them?

They could give everyone they see not wearing a mask the evil eye. Alternatively they could cough on them. Or they could wear a shirt that says “I have COVID-19, stay away,” or a mask that says something similar. Or they could verbally confront the non-mask wearers by asking them where their mask is, and giving them a stern lecture, effectively joining a small army of “the mask police.”

Unfortunately these approaches are frequently futile, because so many of the people who are not wearing a mask will either ignore you, or might even tell you to take a hike. At its worst you may be assaulted as has been the case when NYPD officers recently confronted someone without a mask, or you may be killed similar to the incident where a security guard did the same at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan last week.

Common sense suggests avoiding the nonmasked public and those who fail to social distance as much as possible. This could mean trying to limit the number of times you need to be out in public. Alternatively you need to walk down the street, zig zagging from one the side of the side walk to the other and when necessary off the sidewalk and into the street. Unfortunately this also puts you into a dangerous situation, where you might be hit by a car.

Masked or not masked during this time of COVID-19 everyone is a potential killer, and social distancing if not practiced by others is something that you need to do.

Dog gone it: Canines and street culture

For lots of reasons many urban dwellers own pets. If you own an animal of the canine variety, and unless you enjoy your residence full of dog urine and excrement, or living with an unhealthy pet, that possibly terrorizes you and your place, then sooner or later, you will need to take your pet outside and maybe even walk it. But this decision (better read obligation) sets in to motion a number of situations and contingencies, particularly if you live in a big city, and most of this touches on selected nuances of street culture.

If you don’t own a dog, you may want to stop reading this post now. I would not have been able to write a blog post of this nature fourteen years ago before our family got Luca, a lab golden mix. Now, I have a better idea of what it is like to live with and care for a dog in an urban environment.

People’s relationships with their dogs and people on the street is worth not just acknowledging, but actually talking about. Dogs often mediate the interactions you encounter or have on the street with other dog owners and walkers (both professionals and owners), delivery folks, joggers, and pedestrians. These serendipitous exchanges occur when you walk down a street with your dog, when you go to a dog park, or take your pet on a run. Your dog (and others you encounter) may be very well behaved or may be super aggressive only when it comes into contact with some people, but not others. It’s hard to tell as you approach someone if your pet has sensed something you haven’t and he will either be smitten or start growling. With the exception of a heightened ability to smell, dogs are like people in many ways.

Dogs are also and often extensions of their owner’s sense of style, class, gender norms, general values, and attitudes. For example, I would not be caught dead walking a Chihuahua or a toy poodle or a poodle for that matter on the street. Likewise neither would I enjoy walking a great Dane or an attack dog. It’s just not my style. When we lived in New York City, and this may have been a function of both apartment living and the Upper West Side, we encountered all manner of ways that people walked (or carried their dogs). Some walked their canine on a leash, others carried their small little dogs in their gigantic purses, and others would push them in a baby stroller. Many people see their dogs as extensions of their families, while others as fashion accessories. On the other hand, some gang members may own a Pitt bull, Rottweiler or English bulldog and the act of walking down the street with a reputed to be aggressive dog makes people fear them. So much so that some jurisdictions have banned these dogs from being owned by anyone. The type of dog you own says something about you.

Walking a dog is not a simple matter. During this activity you can encounter an array of situations and consequently decisions that you must make: will you let your dog sniff another dog’s butt, hump them or allow them to be humped, does it play well with other dogs in a dog park or dog run, is it friendly around kids? etc. etc.

I’ve had lots of great experiences walking our dog on the street and letting him play in the dog park. I’ve also had my share of really dumb interactions with both people who own dogs and those who don’t. Not only dogs, but their owners can be whack jobs too, so it’s important to be cautious when you are out of your abode with your pooch.

Over time Luca became increasingly chill, adopting a live and let live kind of attitude. Although he was a big dog, he was also regal, sweet, and good looking. Luca inspired strangers to want to pet him. The people who knew better not to pet dogs they didn’t know, would occasionally ask me if they could pet him, and I would almost always oblige. After determining that it was safe, I‘d let the man, woman, or child pet him. I had a working ritual: make Luca sit, have the person crouch down, at the dog’s eye level, and once I knew Luca had that innocent look, I would let the person pet him.

Indeed, Luca was like a therapy dog to some strangers. People would become smitten and kinder as they reached down to pet him saying all sorts of endearing things: “you’re such a gooood boy,” “look at you, you’re so beautiful!” etc. After petting him, they looked more relaxed and left with a huge grin on their faces. I had difficulty with children who ran at full gallop towards him wanting desperately to pet him. In these cases, I acted as a shield between the child and Luca. But I did wonder where the parents were. The with-it parents would encourage the child to ask me first if they could pet Luca, but other parents were either distracted or didn’t realize that dogs can be scared and that when they get scared might respond aggressively. When I politely interceded, the parents would give me this look as if Luca was a monster.

Our dog has also nipped at other dogs and people and this has been a disconcerting (i.e., resource intensive) experience for us. For example, once a yappy pug was taking nips at Luca and I guess he got tired of it and bit him back. The owner, who I imagine was pretty new to dog ownership, thought that our dog was unnecessarily aggressive, and wanted to call the police, then worried if he had all the appropriate shots, etc.. Another time, I was sitting on a bench in front of a bakery, with my head down, hand on leash, texting on my phone, and not paying attention to the people who were walking by, while my wife went inside. Suddenly Luca leapt, barked, and attempted to bite a person who was coming close to me, while I doubled down on my grip on his leash. He was protecting me while I was distracted.

People are not the only unpredictable creatures. Many dogs were also crazy. On several occasions while I was minding my own business and walking Luca, I’ve had dogs unexpectedly run at full speed across a vehicular laden street to attack my dog. I’ve had dogs jump off a porch, run across a front lawn, and attempt to hop off an embankment to attack Luca. All this while dog owners are distracted or didn’t give a darn. Dog parks and dog runs can be especially difficult places to negotiate. For the most part we had great experiences with our dog and the ones that roam the dog parks. He went there, played nice with others, and then we left. However once I took him there at midday when initially there was only another person, both of our dogs, and me. The individual and I struck up a pleasant conversation while we were sitting on the bench while our dogs played nicely. Then, all of a sudden she picked up her dog, and held it close to her body. I wondered what was going on. I quickly turned my head in the direction that she was staring, and in one split second, two mastiffs and their owner, just entered the park within seconds one of them had his jaw firmly clenched on our dog’s ear, with another circling and barking ready for the kill. With my dog yelping, I leapt to my feet, started yelling profanities at the dog and owner who was dressed in camo fatigues. Almost immediately, I started kicking the circling dog in the ribs, and the one that had Luca’s ear. Meanwhile a crowd was forming around the dog park, equally shouting profanities at the dog owner, while he was unsuccessfully attempting to pry the mouth of his dog off Luca’s ear. I was worried that if I pulled my dog I might either have a part of my body ripped off or my dog’s ear too. Within five minutes, the incident was over and I quickly left with Luca with a large gash in his ear. To this day, this incident frequently replays itself in my head, and I suspect that Luca did too.

In general, having a dog in an apartment can be challenging. It’s not the occasional barking, but using the elevator and the closer contact with residents may put you and your dog in uncomfortable situations. Due to “building rules,” we were only allowed to use the freight elevator to bring our dog up and down. In the meantime, one of the three elevators in the building was continuously broken, and many of the residents were not so understanding of the situation. At other times, when people thought we did not know the rules but were told by the doorman that we could use the non-freight elevator or the freight elevator was broken, some residents would get upset with us and remind us about the rules. Alternatively and occasionally there was an aggressive dog that someone had on the elevator at the same time we had ours who attempted to bite him. Likewise it was a real pain or embarrassing when our dog peed in the foyer, or suffered from diarrhea which happened every three months because he ate all manner of discarded detritus on the sidewalk if we weren’t careful, and we had to take him out at least six times a day including at 3 am.

Walking a dog in an urban environment also brings up the question of where is s/he going to pee and shit and where are you going to deposit that kind of refuse. If it’s a big city like New York, then tossing it in a public trash does not present much of a challenge, but if you are in a city with few of these types of receptacles you may be tempted to throw it into someone’s supercan behind their house or down an alley. Fun fact. Many people don’t like dog shit dumped in their supercans. And I can identify with that. If it is during a hot summer, right after the bin has been picked up, then there is a high chance that the excrement is going to increase the possibility that the bin will smell and attract more rodents than usual.

In the end, although dogs can be “man’s best friend,” they are also part of street culture, and extensions of one’s personal style and relationship with the street. I don’t expect every dog owner to have the same experiences I had with ours, but talking with others about their dogs, particularly in big cities, I’ve noted a considerable amount of similarities. Our dog changed in many small ways how I perceive the street, my understanding of people’s relationships with their canines, and my interactions with other people’s pets.

Dedicated to the memory of Luca (April 8, 2006-May 4, 2020), trusted friend, emotional support dog, and part of our family crew