Up from the streets: birmingham city of colours festival

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Street art is part of the landscape of every city; any unpoliced surface won’t have to wait long until someone comes along and sprays some paint all over it. Last weekend at the City of Colours festival in Birmingham, street artists took over every available wall and made Digbeth even more colourful.

Digbeth already has a fair crop of graffiti that almost seems self-renewing. It pops up all over the place, colourful, sometimes abstract, sometimes beautiful, sometimes funny and sometimes grotesque (but in a good way). There’s a load of talent out there, even if they do really like wearing baseball caps for some weird reason (do all graffiti artists have really unruly hair? Does spray paint emit some chemical that makes your hair super frizzy or something? We may never know the truth…)

Over the years, street art has become more mainstream and acceptable; whatever you think of Banksy, his (or her? Who knows? Who cares?) stencil wielding has done a lot to show that graffiti is more than just mindless vandalism. Tagging is less than mindless vandalism, it takes no skill at all to mis-spell a word, adding the obligatory random z, and spray it on the wall for literally no reason. You don’t own that wall, you haven’t created anything on that wall you’re taking credit for, so what’s your point? Proper graffiti is an art discipline of it’s own and recognised so much that it’s an actual industry now. The map for the City of Colours Festival has ads for graffiti artists for hire – if you’re a new SEO marketing company then an on-brand wall mural is an essential part of your start up budget, obv.

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The thing that makes graffiti successful, in my opinion, is the almost unexpectedness of it – by the nature of the form, it’s often found in derelict, almost un-populated areas; old factories, knackered buildings that no-one can be bothered to renovate, in areas of the city that used to be thriving industrial districts (and there are plenty of those in Birmingham). Taking a short cut down a deserted back street you might see an original piece of art among the buddleja and discarded pallets. If it’s good graffiti it can make you look at the area differently, you notice your surroundings more because it’s so unexpected, it makes the setting more than just an empty building, even if it has just been chosen for it’s relative seclusion.

If you look at any arts council funded project and you’re bound to find something in their about place; one criteria that always seems to be high on the list is platemaking art within a social context. In english I think what they mean is art that makes you look at somewhere differently, or makes you notice it all as a destination rather than a thoroughfare. That’s what graffiti does – it makes you look, makes you notice your surroundings and re-evaluate it as somewhere that inspires artistic endeavour.

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Read anything about creativity and it’s clear that anyone who is truly an artist, does it because they have to; it’s not a choice, it’s a compulsion. They have to get their ideas out of their head and into the world, whatever their medium, whether it’s through paint, music, words or a spray can. That’s what street art has at it’s core, no matter if you like the style, it’s real art; it’s there because the artist had to do it. They had to get that message from inside their head onto the wall, even if no one else really sees it or appreciates it; even if it’s illegal, even if it’s not going to make them any money.

Taking it off the streets, into legal boards and down the side streets by the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios, takes some of the bite out of it. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was still wearing baseball caps, but it can’t be the same, doing it with the backing of the Arts Council and a load of middle class people with children called stuff like Barnaby and Jemima who are really just there to get something that they can put on the kitchen wall that will go with their Habitat tea towels.

Perhaps though that’s how it’s supposed to be; the artists that cut their teeth, and knuckles, on car park walls have got their thing down; they’ve got a style, they’re older, wiser, better at fading and deserve some recognition and money in return for their hard work and skill. And if their artwork is at a festival or a super hip gallery then they’re not fighting the new comers for space in the car park anymore.

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What makes graffiti and street art so vital is the newness – the artists at City of Colours are up; they’ve graduated from the car parks – but, hopefully, there will always be more following, making their art wherever they can because they just have to. Across the country, pretty much every wall is owned by someone, from the council (kind of supposed to be us, but not really) to Tescos and Wallmart and big faceless corporations, even though if you think about it, owning stuff is kind of a ridiculous concept. Street art is a reminder of just how stupid that it; you can own the wall but you can’t stop anyone with a spray can and some spare time from making it their own, even if it’s only until it gets blasted off with a pressure washer. The idea has made it out; it’s got a life now, and whatever else you buy, you can’t own that.

If you like this you should follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones and also read my post on feltism.

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