These streets are speaking. Some of their words are gibberish. Others allude to inside jokes. Many tell you to go buy stuff or check out this band or that yard sale. Once in a while, they catch you off guard.
Since we don't generally walk looking down, it's hard to catch the designs on the sidewalk. Most are mysterious arrows with cryptic messages like "N. Grid" and "6 Street Gas." Though they were probably once used for construction projects, it's hard to resist following them — just in case they're actually a code for the portal to Hogwarts, or something.
We also rarely notice art that doesn't announce itself as such: the flower arrangements outside the Rock, the adorable Main Green Bruno statue currently embracing a blow-up guitar, the ring from the bell tower as students file out of classrooms.
This especially applies to art that is not man-made: the George Street trees with eerily realistic eyes in their trunks or the patterns in the fur of East Side cats. If these things don't count as art because no creativity went into them, perhaps the missing ingredient is the creativity of the beholder.
Though the line between art and environment is blurry, today's focus is on the art around us that is intentional.
Providence has a love-hate relationship with graffiti and street art. Despite occasional run-ins with the law, graffiti artists help give Providence the energy that inspires its residents to create.
As to the issue of whether illegal alterations of public property should be tolerated, I'll offer this analogy: Parents understandably yell at their children for scribbling on the walls in crayon. But if your kid were super talented and beautified some areas of the house that direly needed it, wouldn't you thank them for a free paint job?
The street art project of most epic proportions — the Wickenden Street underpass mural, created between 1997 and 2007 by several Brown alums and volunteers including Fox Point students — crumbled earlier in 2010 when the underpass was torn down. According to an article in the Providence Phoenix, the mural was a hassle to keep up anyway. But now its former location looks like a wasteland.
A few blocks east, on the wall leading to the entrance of Brickway on Wickenden, bold, comic-book-style illustrations of a diner scene pop out at passersby.
Thayer Street's offerings mostly consist of large bubble letters that are either unintelligible or irrelevant to anyone who doesn't know the artist. But in Fones Alley, many hands have enhanced the dumpsters next to La Creperie. One contributor quotes Jack Kerouac: "My fault, my failure is not in the passions I have but in my lack of control of them." A quote inscribed in a public setting deserves special attention — its presence means someone, somewhere thought it was the most important quote for everyone to see.
A rock next to Pembroke's Brown Street entrance reads a more lighthearted message, which may just become Brown's unofficial slogan: "Let's play school!"
"Postmodernism is bourgeois curd," announces a decidedly postmodern telephone pole inscription on George Street. This street is also home to some neon pink phallic drawings and vibrant, mutant sea creatures swimming down the sidewalk — and possibly diving under the cement when no one's looking.
This survey wouldn't be complete without mentioning the intimidating gaze of Andre the Giant, courtesy of RISD graduate Shepard Fairey. Situated on telephone polls and streetlamps around campus, these "OBEY" stickers lie adjacent to the very objects of their parody: advertisements. Some of these ads, however, rival Fairey's signature design in arbitrariness, such as the Nice Slice stickers featuring snowmen on skateboards. According to the guys at Nice Slice, Fairey actually designed many of their promotional stickers, but not the skateboarding snowmen.
As far as stickers and fliers go, many seem to be there for no purpose other than amusement. "Sperm Men 2009" reads a sticker posted up and down Waterman Street, visually repeating its own words with a picture of several swimming sperm. A similarly repetitive sticker, reading "ducky," features a picture of a duck. A sign on a streetlight reads "this way" with an arrow pointing upward, drawing the viewer's attention to the impossibility of tilting one's head up far enough to see the top of the pole clearly. The solitary word "flesh" adorns a sign on Prospect Street, perhaps ominously alluding to the famous human-skin-bound books in the nearby John Hay Library.
These streets are speaking. You may not reply, but they have left you with something less tangible and more permanent than your footprints.