Metro, University News

Urban studies bus tour surveys street art

Led by postdoctoral fellow, bus tour analyzes range of graffiti found in downtown Providence

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An array of graffiti — both legal and illegal — makes its mark on some buildings and alleyways in downtown Providence.

Students, faculty members and community members got a glimpse of Providence’s street art as part of the second installment of the annual Urban Studies Program Bus Tour Series.

Led by Stefano Bloch, a postdoctoral fellow in urban studies, Friday’s one-and-a-half-hour tour examined street art — specifically graffiti — in downtown Providence. Participants visited two locations that contained a mix of  legal and illegal graffiti. After, they attended a brief discussion session in Maxcy Hall, the urban studies department’s new home following the recent demolition of 29 Manning Walk.

Dietrich Neumann, professor of history of art and architecture, professor of Italian studies and professor and director of urban studies kicked off the bus tour.  He “made it a hallmark of the Urban Studies Program,” said Maggie Livingstone ’16, head of the Urban Studies Departmental Undergraduate Group and a former Herald features editor.

Now in its second year, the series is designed to help Brown students learn about Providence while engaging with the local community. 

The tour “brought us to places that we’d never think to go, where there is this sense of community that we’re not really aware of,” said Melissa Isidor ’17, an urban studies concentrator.

Bloch opened the tour by explaining that he had no plan to either romanticize or demonize graffiti as an “out-of-place” — and consequently illegal — form of expression. Rather, he said he intended to analyze “the performance of graffiti, what is intended by graffiti writers and some of the motivations for doing graffiti.”

“The first way to think about graffiti is as a visual manifestation of people acting out — transgressing and contesting dominant ideologies, rules, moral geographies,” Bloch said. “That is true in just about every place where there (are) humans on earth.”

Bloch went on to discuss the differences between gang and non-gang graffiti — namely, that non-gang graffiti often exists for more personal reasons and contextualized by a “graffiti community” that is able to decipher the seemingly cryptic markings. “It’s about fame and adventure. It’s about having fun. Sometimes it’s political. It’s about changing the appearance of a built environment without having to exchange money, without having degrees, without having power,” Bloch said.

The tour’s first stop was Pearl Street Lofts, a residential space that was repurposed from 19th- and 20th-century industrial buildings. Past its gentrified red brick veneer is an alleyway covered in graffiti tags — defined by Bloch as simple, monochrome signatures. Above the tags are larger, multi-colored, bubble-letter writings called “throw-ups.” According to the almost hierarchical system of the graffiti community, these throw-ups could only be covered by “pieces,” which are considered to be more complex and labor-intensive.

The tour then traveled a few blocks to the Avenue Concept — a project, including a store and a graffiti yard, that attempts to develop public art in Providence while building community amongst artists.

“People can come here and practice. It’s legal,” Bloch said. “You can actually get spray paint from (the store).”

Back in Maxcy Hall, participants had the chance to chat with Bloch about his research while enjoying cider donuts and coffee.

Bloch pointed out the tour’s importance in reminding Brown students that they are part of a much larger Providence community. The tours consist of a diverse group of people — undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members, staff members and residents of Providence.

Looking ahead, tours will resume after winter break and will include titles such as: “Providence: The Industrial City Transformed” and “Can Urban and Agriculture Coexist?” 

“As of now, all the tours are technically filled, but if you come you can usually get a spot,” Livingstone said.