Here it is: our city in paint. From the “tags” that appear overnight to the elaborate murals that fill our city’s most vibrant neighborhoods with color, a short drive through any of St. Louis’ streets will reveal an art collection of great variety.
Whether you appreciate, admire, or detest graffiti, it makes its presence known. Seen through a certain lens, graffiti may just look like scribbles. If you embrace it as art, it is an opportunity to peer into local culture. The individuals who create the graffiti we see all over town are actual people, citizens of St. Louis, maybe even your friends and neighbors. Their contributions are an implicit weave in the tapestry that is St. Louis.
“Art is what you can get away with.” -Andy Warhol
Everybody can see it, even if they may not want to. The most provocative installments become something that, once seen, cannot be unseen. One of such conspicuous examples of St. Louis graffiti writers is the jarringly titled “RatFag,” whose moniker alone is likely meant to pique the viewer’s curiosity. The anonymous writer tags his alias in eye-catching places, often difficult to get to, causing some of us to wonder, “how?” and undoubtedly provoking others to question, “why?”
What you might picture when we say graffiti is not the only form of expression for artists making their mark on city walls. In the world of large-scale public art, graffiti may more specifically refer to work that is text-based while mural art may be more image-focused. Street art may or may not have been created with permission, with graffiti most often appearing unsolicited, while what is referred to as a mural is most likely work that has been deliberately commissioned by someone. The different species of street art share common ground in that they are made on publicly visible walls and are thereby accessible for viewing by virtually anyone.
If you’ve driven by any neighborhood in the City of St. Louis, you have surely seen street art in some form. One very omnipresent example is the work produced by painter Phil Jarvis. Jarvis’s works can be found in several St. Louis staples, from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Sump Coffee to the Sauce on the Side building in the Grove, and all the way to Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, among many others. Jarvis resides in St. Louis but is an internationally renowned artist, having been commissioned hand-painted signs and murals as far as Europe and South America. During quarantine, he decided to use his free time to turn the façade of his own house into a colorful mural that seems to grow out of the vegetation surrounding the house.
Just south of the Gateway Arch, street art sets world records at the annual graffiti festival known as Paint Louis. What started in the late nineties as a “graffiti jam” has grown to host graffiti writers from all over the world who come together over Labor Day weekend to paint the two-mile flood wall along the Mississippi River. Paint Louis is by many accounts the only event of its kind. It offers a welcoming place to an art form that is usually met with rejection and even disgust to take place with not just permission but celebration.
The nature of the event emphasizes the underlying truth of this kind of art: just like the walls it adorns, or the individuals who pass it every day, street art does not remain forever. With each passing year at Paint Louis and in every moment on the broader canvas of the city, a new layer emerges. Each layer, solicited or not, forms the story of who we are.
Strong public art expressions can create a sense of place. Street art is an outlet for artists of all walks of life to impart a piece of themselves onto the community. Separate from the intention of the artist, one message is always the same: this is St. Louis. If you look around, you will find that each little thing that composes the environment composes our identity. This gallery is an ever-changing portrait of us.