City walls- cities of walls: the cultural wall system and the intramuros/ extramuros symbolic system

wounded wall

wounded wall

Walls are, as Simmel (Frisby 1998) first put it, ‘’mute’’. Throughout the years, in both imagination and practices, walls have been used as boundaries. With the spatial expansion of the cities when capitalism entered political economy, walls were demolished in order to convert the medieval city to the contemporary model that was now sprawling, considering the walls as obstacles for the further expansion of the city (Brighenti 2009).

Whereas being used as protection measures in the past, now walls became both symbols of segregation and alienation of communities walling themselves from the rest of the city. The case of famous ghetto physical walls as well as imaginary walls in the memory of people, as in the case of late- medieval Jewish ghetto, isolated communities physically as well as mentally from the rest of their neighbours.

Other type of wall systems are yet developed in the contemporary city context, such as the ones Foucault (1977) is talking about mentioning social exclusion and isolation from the walls of prisons and other enclosed institutions. Therefore modern walls do not stand for power and wealth but are symbols of the power to punish as they are transformed to elements of spatial political economy of government (Brighenti 2009).

Walls are now turned into tools for managing enclaves inside the modern cities since the protection from external invasion is no longer a priority. The boundary- making features of the walls such as fences, parapets and so on are the new ways of managing post- industrial social control proving what Alsayyad and Roy (2006) had claimed that contemporary urban condition is a ‘’medieval modernity’’: contemporary urban geographies appear to be constituted through a constellation of fragmented spaces, as embodied in the exemplary cases of the gated enclave, the squatter settlement and the camp. In relation to this, the Israeli architecture of occupation in the Palestinian territories is an example of the most effective device for the governments of population focusing on the organisation of space and the political dynamics that follow it.

As walls demarcate a within and a beyond, they define flows of circulation, set paths and trajectories for people, and consequently determine the possibilities and impossibilities of encounters (Brighenti 2009). Besides being boundaries between territories, we come to realise that walls are territories themselves. Walls do not only separate but they also hide so their existence in the urban context is linked to visibility as well since they either open or close our horizons.

Graffiti as a principal wall practice is transforming wall surfaces into interactive platforms for foundational dialogism, it is something like in-your-face appropriation of public visual surfaces. Therefore the wall, in this case, can be seen as a cultural device or even as a stage for acting. After all, the city is more vivid when you speak to it (Banksy 2005).

The different meaningful aspects of wall- artefacts together with the fact that they are probably the most representative elements of urban landscapes give them a symbolic dimension. The artists working on walls see urban space as no neutral physical entity. The actual thickness of experiencing the urban is dependent on the fact that we inhabit second- hand worlds: worlds determined by meanings received from others (Frisby 2001).

Since walls and streets are boundaries for social constructed zones, street artists show that what is normally regulated by property and commercial regimes, can be appropriated as an unconstrained, unsanctioned, uncontainable, antagonistic act (Irvine 2011). As each city is a different adventure whose main elements, walls and concrete is the artistic substance to work on, walls are transformed to sounding boards that once you start listening they never shut up. After all a wall is a very big weapon. It is one of the nastiest things you can hit somebody with (Banksy 2005).

Considering the city as their necessary working environment as well as a real teacher, providing a daily instruction manual for visual codes and semiotic systems in which we live and move and have our being, street artists work with a big identification and empathy with the city: they state something in and with the city, many times like an aesthetic therapy of the dysaesthetics of urban controlled (Irvine 2011).

Out there, in the city, where walls and screens are increasingly intermingled, street artists are fond of breaking the cultural wall, which controls art intramurally within established disciplinary practices, therefore street art inserts itself in the city, injects itself on the city walls as a significant argument for visibility, the socio- political structure of being visible in urban space (Irvine 2011). Like Pop art, street art is introducing and appropriating a new category of art which comes in opposition with the cultural wall system and its institutionalised type of art.

In this sense, the extramural zones of non art space and the logic of the art container are now turned inside out: what was once banished from the walls of the art institutions is reflected back on the walls of the city. Street art is now the mural art of the extramuros, outside the institutional walls (Irvine 2011).

One of the major obsessions of modern art theory is the one of the cultural wall that is actually referring to the institutional walls, the over- determined modernist white cube of four gallery walls (Brighenti 2009) and the following artworks representing symbolic capital in domestic space.

The use of the intramuros/ extramuros symbolic system, inside and outside the walls, names both material and symbolic spaces, zones of authority, and hierarchies of identity (Brighenti 2009). The link of cultural wall system with the symbolic intramuros/ extramuros system is profound if we consider that within the institutional boundaries of the art world system, we learn what type of art is included and includable and excluded and excludable.

The dominant visibility regimes tend to function according to this concept but when the actual wall is collapsed and is no longer boundary for the art piece that is converted to a street performance, then the extramural becomes included and includable. The collapse of the wall between the viewer and the art piece is not only imagined, in this case, such as it was required and presupposed in Dadaism, but becomes an actual practice through street art.

What is actually happening with street art nowadays is that street artists as other nomads inscribe visual interventions that are not only working at the local community level but also globally. They are working on different cities’ canvases and documenting their work for all to be able to see. The example of Banksy’s stencil work at the Palestinian boarder walls that has been viewable from people all over the world prove that the art of the extramural world has reconceived both material and conceptual walls and spaces; the extramural becomes post- mural (Irvine 2011).


Alsayyad, N. & Ananya, R. (2006) Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era. In Space and Policy Vol 10 No 1, pp 1-20.

Banksy (2005) Pictures of Walls. Pictures on walls.
Banksy (2005) Wall and Piece. England, Random House.

Banksy (2005) Pictures of Walls. Pictures on walls.

Brighenti, A. (2009) Walled urbs to urban walls- and return? On the social life of walls. In The Wall and the City. Trento, Professional Dreamers’ Press.

Brighenti, A. & Mattiucci, C. (2009) Editing Urban Environments: Territories, Prolongations,Visibilities. In Mediacity . Berlin, Frank & Timme.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison. New York, Pantheon Books.

Frisby, D. (2001) Cityscapes of Modernity: Critical Explorations. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Irvine, M. (2011) The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture. In Sandwell, B. & Heywood, I. eds. Handbook of Visual Culture. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Street art as producer of urban imaginary

alternative spectacle

alternative spectacle

As the metropolis provokes and inspires, it is the exposure to difference, otherness and frustration that stimulates the artist (Sennett 1990). And as the personal and collective narration is aiming at using urban symbolism for reforming urban mindscapes giving new dimensions to urban space, this is exactly the way the sign is linked to the social and spatial dimensions of places. What matters in this case is how people use these places for creating their collective urban plots. Their different mindscapes and imaginaries are the indicators for understanding the physical reality of the urban together with its consequent meaning. And this is where street art becomes the tool for making the invisible visible again and a community re-imaged and re-imagined (Irvine 2011).

Except for offering uses and functions, space also includes potential and choice. The urban mindscape as another landscape, the one of the mind, consists of local and external images of the city which indicate something between the city as a physical entity and the visual perceptions people acquire about it (Bianchini 2006). Urban imaginaries can be defined as symbolic, psychic indicators of unconscious desires and social constructions impacting on urban reality (Silva 2003).

As Castoriadis underlines, social imaginary is expressed by the people’s potential for creative and autonomous self- activity (Curtis 1997). In addition to this, l’imaginaire urbaine has been essential for constructing an experimental utopia for new urbanism (Lefebvre 1996) and besides this we can also state that the exploration of what is humanly possible needs to use the urban environment as a potential for encountering possibility and diversity that will give way to recreation.

Therefore, city- dwellers need to participate in the process of attaching meaning to urban space by introducing their activities inside its context and therefore identify themselves through them. In most of the cases, thresholds, like street art communities, can provide with this opportunity as they give people the freedom that is considered as necessary prerequisite for play (Stavrides 2007). And there, the urban art movement, expressed via street art genres, becomes the paradigm of hybridity in global visual culture. Thus, street art production as a metaphor of the socio- spatial orientation becomes the community practice and purposeful tool for reclaiming space by spreading cultural signs.

As the city is not merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction, it is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it, it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature (Ambrose 1994). As a consequence, the role of the metropolis in the production of street artworks is of paramount importance if we take into consideration that the urban space is not only the inspiration and stimulation of the artists but also the environment they comment upon together with the place that hosts and sustains street art. In this distribution of the perceptible (Rancière 2004), street artists, as other drifters and flaneurs, another type of strollers, are looking for evidence in the urban space and by collecting them, they tend to construct their stories as another visual journey taking place in our daily paths.

The artist Slinkachu for example, has created his world of Little People by setting up a variety of everyday life scenes of his tiny figures after having remodelled, painted and then placed them in city streets all over the world. In Slinkatchu’s work the world is transformed into this two-tier universe with reality contrasted against small frozen moments of an alternative world. Slinkachu decided to make something that would make people look down and stare with childlike fascination. The drama in the set-ups of the tiny characters reflects a wider urban experience and the annoyances of city life. The humour in the work prevents it from becoming too negative. It catches people where they least expect it and jolts them out of their everyday lives. His art might be small but his resonance is larger than life (Self 2008).

Another example is the artist Space Invader who by spreading out ‘’mosaic viruses’’ all over the city is starting up an urban game whilst blighting up the place a bit. The city becomes the concrete, the substance to work on and a variety of adventures with different participants is constructed in this context. These little interruptions on one’s visual field are cheerfully subversive and utterly unchallenging , presenting themselves as somewhere between a jeu d’esprit and a mirror irritation, depending on one’s point of view. Will your street be invaded next? (mine was), a type of game to capture them and search to find them. (Invader 2008).

The artist Mark Jenkins sculptures human- like figures by using box sealing tape and then positions them in strategic points inside the city. His practice of street art is to use the street as a stage where passers- by become actors. He usually appropriates indoor concepts by setting the same scenes outdoor in the streets; for example a man sleeping on a bed in the middle of a parking in Winston- Salem.

Different genres of street art can be then seen as a variety of symbolic signs and images that construct their own situations by using public space in order to communicate a meaning that most of the times comes in opposition to the dominant one. The power of the message is also backed by the specific spot it is placed since the narration has to be constructed by using what is already there and at the same time transforming it into something new by giving it a different meaning. A good example is the strategically placed stencil in the forefront of Barclay bank with a sinister man in black hat reminding people who are using the cash point the danger of contemporary city life by shouting ‘’Beware pickpockets’’. The inscribed ‘’Vote here’’ on a trash can in New York can be seen as another case of questioning today’s narration and symbolism while detourning the already existing meanings.

Therefore the placement of work is often a call to place, marking locations with awareness, over against the proliferating urban non- places of anonymous transit and commerce- big box stores, the mail, the Starbucks (Augé 2009). Street art is then the medium for constructing a new visual landscape, representative of a new kind of attention to the phenomenology of the city by introducing play and gift in public exchange.


Ambrose, P. (1994) Urban Process and Power. London, Routledge.

Augé M. (2009) Non- Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 2nd ed, London, Verso.

Bianchini, F. (2006) European Urban Mindscapes: Concepts, Cultural representations and Policy applications. In European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History and Politics Vol 23 No 1,pp 13-31.

Curtis, D. (1997) In Castoriadis, C. ed. The Castoriadis Reader. Blackwell, Oxford and Malde, pp 8-15.

Invader (2008) Invasion in the UK: Space Invaders and Its UK Influences. Trans- Atlantic Publications.

Irvine, M. (2011) The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture. In Sandwell, B. & Heywood, I. eds. Handbook of Visual Culture. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writings on Cities. Oxford, Blackwell.

Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics : The Distribution of the Sensible. London & New York, Continuum.

Self, W. (2008) Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkatchu, 2nd ed, England, Boxtree.

Sennett, R. (1990) The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. London and Boston, Faber and Faber.

Silva, A. (2003) Urban Imaginaries from Latin America Documenta 11. Stuttgart, Hatje Cantz.

Stavrides, S. Heterotopias and the Experience of Porous Urban Space. In Franck, K. A. & Stevens, Q. eds. Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. 2nd ed, London, Routledge.