Cardiff doesn’t seem too hot on its street art. Is it hidden away, or is there just really not that much of it? What makes cities like Bristol or Manchester accommodating to street art in a way that the Welsh capital just doesn’t seem to be? These were just some of the questions being debated in Urban Tap House last week, as Lisa Heledd-Jones and Laura Drane hosted a panel discussion on the subject to coincide with the launch of Micah Purnell‘s ‘Dear Progress’ series in the city.
First, there was a question of semantics: is it ‘street art’? It can’t be ‘graffiti’ if you want it to be funded in any way. ‘Public art’ sounds too much like a 1980s urban regeneration project. Perhaps ‘art in the public realm’ is the most accurate description, but it’s a bit too wordy really. But whatever you choose to call it, it goes without saying that Cardiff lags behind some of the UK cities it would like to see itself as comparable with. The Empty Walls project as part of Made in Roath has left that side of the city with some fine examples (and as an ex-Sheffielder I always appreciated seeing Phlegm’s work around and about), and Womanby Street is now an ever-changing canvas of artwork, but outside of these areas there seems to be very little. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion as to why this might be the case was that unlike Bristol – and certainly unlike Manchester, where Micah completes a lot of his work – Cardiff is not a haven of post-industrial dereliction; there are no broad sweeps of the city characterised by empty or decaying buildings, perfect for repurposing as works of art. And yet, this is a strong reason for encouraging street art in the city: Emma Price spoke of art in the public realm as agitating questions around public and private, and the rights to the city, whereas Micah defined street art as a way of taking ownership over your city, themes that can be felt as keenly in Cardiff as in any UK city, with the preponderance of high end shopping and the generic regeneration feel of new developments from the city centre down to Cardiff Bay. If the city becomes a vast vista of coloured glass and conspicuous consumption then where are the opportunities for the unexpected urban encounters that street art offers? Well, we can always just hop on a train to Bristol, but should we accept this?
There were artists present who assured the room that there is indeed a Cardiff ‘scene’ when it comes to street art (such as local photographer Dan Green), and there’s an appetite for it, but it seems that something needs to happen in order to kick-start more action around the city. Talking about his experiences running Upfest, Stephen Hayles believes that the best way to talk to the council is through money, and that for officials to be more accommodating of this kind of art they need to see the monetary benefits of it in terms of the footfall it attracts and the potential knock-on spending for local businesses, but then there are obvious tensions around this given street art’s connections to more subversive subcultures potentially unwilling to be subsumed into council-approved schemes. Food for thought all round then, and hopefully a chance for these conversations to continue and for action to be born out of them. And for now? Well there are posters of Micah’s to be found all round the city for the rest of the month (I’ve only found one so far, so there’s plenty of searching to be done!).