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.