When does vandalism become “street art”? Is it only when Croydon Council says so?
That’s a question which has been raised this week by the South Norwood Tourist Board, and which seems likely to be brought up at tonight’s public meeting on Surrey Street to discuss what the council calls “improvements” to the 700-year-old street market, but which many in the community regard suspiciously as an attempt to impose gentrification.
Despite strong opposition from Surrey Street traders, shopkeepers and residents to proposals for neon lighting “public art”, the council went ahead last week and installed neon signage beneath the footbridge over the market.
Although the public is paying for the installation, the commissioning process and the work’s cost has been kept secret. As has the identity of whoever it was who signed off on the “message” and its delivery.
The council “outsourced” the commissioning of the light work to Rise Gallery, the private business opened on St George’s Walk in 2014 by Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison (motto: “Bridging the gap between the art world and the commercial sector“. Kerrching!).
Zuchowski-Morrison is understood to be researching further neon lighting installations for each end of the market street. This is despite the strong levels of disapproval expressed by the market community, which would prefer more traditional, wrought iron arches to be installed at each end of the street to better reflect its history, and also avoid shining light into residents’ homes throughout the day and night.
Zuchowski-Morrison has become the council’s default option whenever matters of visual art are mentioned in Croydon’s efforts to out-hipster Hoxton.
Part of Rise Gallery’s “thing” has been to encourage graffiti artists to paint murals across the shutters of St George’s Walk shops – many of them long-ago left vacant – and around the hoardings of the Taberner House building site.
Many are colourful, some are strikingly well-done, but some are of indifferent artistic merit, while many amount to little more than elaborate “tags”, which if sprayed on the side of anyone’s house or office would usually elicit a call to the council to take enforcement action and have it cleaned off.
Indeed, elsewhere around the borough, that’s exactly what the council has been doing to other outbreaks of colourful tagging.
It is this mixed message, and the possibility that the council is seeking to control “public art”, which has animated the South Norwood Tourist Board.
“Art has always been a topic of great debate as to what is a ‘masterpiece’ or what can be defined as being created by someone with talent. Is art, simply, in the eye of the beholder?” they ask.
“Now put the word ‘street’ in front of it, and does the discussion change? Now use ‘graffiti’, a common word that is usually used in a negative manner, and associated with a degenerative youth.
“When does ‘street art’ become acceptable, appreciated or approved – and who makes these decisions? While Croydon Council appear to be sanctioning certain hoardings to be used by street artists, other places of banal grey, showing the frayed historic flyers advertising club nights long gone, are left, highlighting an area’s disengagement or decline.
“A representative from a group of like-minded artists have contact SNTB to help fight there corner by widening the debate. They are just a small example of talented individuals but there are lots more within our community that have a lot of diverse talent, and the desire to express themselves in a variety of ways.
“If it is adding vibrant colour and life to our community, and not causing any danger, should this be suppressed or encouraged?”
SNTB has noted that some tagging in their neighbourhood has been eradicated by the council using some slate grey paint, while other graffiti has been allowed to remain. “Why?” they ask. “Because it has been approved through a bureaucratic system? Is it about taste or simple control? Who are we to judge what is acceptable and what isn’t, even though the location of the art is of similar conditions but the difference is that some doesn’t have ‘approval’.”
Tonight’s meeting may show whether the neon sign message from Surrey Street to the world of “A spruple hello could lead to a Millran hinge” (or something like that) has broad approval among the people who have to live with it.
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