Cities Journal
City Life

No City Life Without Urban Art

No City Life Without Urban Art
Photo credit: Tiws / Flickr

Some people say that the way you know you are in an urban area is the presence of graffiti. This is an outdated perspective, however. While graffiti has traditionally been a hallmark of urban life, urban art has become so much more.

These days, art on the street does not just mock or destroy beauty. Urban art now creates beauty in the city, renewing life in a concrete jungle. Without urban art, city life would be far more dismal.


Modern approaches to urban art require a discussion of phenomenology and Shepard Fairey. Simply put, according to the Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, phenomenology presents items from the first-person perspective as a means to study consciousness.

It is a discipline within the field of philosophy that gained prominence in the 20th Century. Shepard Fairey, perhaps one of the world’s best-known urban artists, uses phenomenology in the art he has displayed in many locations for decades. On his website, Fairey describes how he used phenomenology in his “Obey” poster, which contained a black-and-white ink drawing of André the Giant.

He says that the “Obey” poster was a practice in phenomenology in that it stimulated interest and curiosity about the urban areas where it was displayed.

Urban Art in Politics

Far from the stereotypical graffiti on a brick wall, urban art has been used as a 21st Century identifier of city life. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama sought a way to ingratiate himself into the minds of his likely voters, who mostly lived in urban areas.

His campaign staff decided to create a series of campaign posters that reflected Obama’s dedication to represent the needs of city-dwellers, who are disproportionately likely to be working class or from a minority group. For the artist, they settled on none other than Fairey. Fairey’s now-famous work makes the circuit through many galleries, among them the National Portrait Gallery.

Revitalizing Cities

Politicians see the benefit of urban art in revitalizing urban life, as well as the administrators of major cities. New York City and Philadelphia have large urban populations and have had problems with vandalism in the past. Both cities have endeavored to change the way the city’s residents, and the world at-large, see the downtown areas.

They use urban art to achieve this. New York City has the “Dot Art” campaign, which galvanizes community groups and local artists to present urban art in temporary exhibitions. Most recently, Dot Art allowed artists with winning designs to beautify concrete barriers in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Similarly, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program seeks to build a more enigmatic and intriguing city by encouraging the creation of murals over areas that typically suffer from graffiti.

Temporary Vandalism

Perhaps the most recent example of phenomenology in urban art are three-dimensional sidewalk chalk drawings. The fact that the drawings are so temporary underscores the fleeting nature of surprise and enjoyment, according to the University of Michigan’s art department.

These drawings attract the attention of passersby, and encourage artists to keep working. Unlike painted graffiti, which is difficult and expensive to cover, a chalk drawing, no matter how intricate or beautiful, is susceptible to rain and wear. Some see it as a reprisal of the concept of the urban vandal, short-term art that is inexpressive, enjoyable and renewable.

Urban art is no longer just the work of sneaky vandals. It is the work that builds power, rebuilds cities, and renews life. Art on the street needs the city, but the city needs art to survive.

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