Street Art, or public art that is often in unconventional locations or is unsanctioned, is widely popular worldwide. From international stars like Banksy to every town’s local graffiti artist, street art calls us to question where art should belong and whom it should belong to. There are a variety of artists who are actually making their creative commentaries in the streets and roads themselves, or basing their works directly off of the street surfaces. From guerrilla repairs, to social commentaries on homelessness, to creative photo montages, all of these street artworks creatively draw new attention to the streets we use every day.
Jim Bachor and the Chicago Pothole Ice Cream Project
As is so often the nature of the artist, Jim Bachor saw an opportunity in a problem. In a series titled, “Treats in the Streets,” Bachor brought his unique mosaic project to Chicago and also Jyväskylä, Finland. He previously completed a similar flower pothole mosaic project in Chicago. The Huffington Post shares this quote from a Bachor email:
“Potholes are universally hated/despised no matter who you are. Ice cream is (almost) universally loved,”
and he cites the longevity of mosaics from thousands of years ago as an inspiration. While the city appreciated his positive energy in reinventing these potholes, they prefer pothole repair be
“left to professionals and CDOT.”
Japan’s Beautiful Manhole Covers
In Japan, even the manhole covers are treated as blank canvases and imbued with intricate scenes and designs. Japan Visitor shares that
“Japan’s manhole covers often include a symbol specific to an area or town as part of their design”
and that there are an estimated 6,000 types of manhole covers. Remo Camerota explains in the book, “Drainspotting” that these attractive manhole covers were introduced to increase public acceptance of public works projects installing new sewer systems outside of the big cities in the 1980s. Almost 95% of the current 1,780 municipalities in Japan now use these unique and artistic manhole covers, which are designed and cast in the municipal foundry based off of city requests. There is a Japan Society of Manhole Covers, and Amusing Planet shares that:
“The art of manhole covers has now reached the point of a national obsession in Japan with numerous municipal departments competing against each other in the pursuit of the perfect manhole cover.”
Photographer S. Morita (Flickr name MRSY) offers thousands of Japanese manhole images that he has captured.
Biancoshock’s “Borderlife” Project
In the streets of Milan, Italy, artist Biancoshock, who specializes in urban and ephemeral art, is installing a thought-provoking and innovative series called “Borderlife.” He has discovered and transformed abandoned manholes into small hidden away rooms in a series of outdoor installations as a type of sculptural social commentary on homelessness. The artist shares this commentary on his own site:
“If some problems cannot be avoided, make them comfortable.”
Mental Floss shares that
“The satirical art is meant to draw attention to the increasingly large homeless population in Bucharest, Romania, where over 600 people live in the sewer system.”
Many of them are minors, as is documented in this article.
“My Potholes” by Davide Luciano and Claudia Ficca
Photographers Davide Luciano and Claudia Ficca apply their creative photography chops in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal to create a surreal series of shot which transform potholes into various new scenes. As their site explains,
“Potholes is a series of photographs depicting the concave street cracks and holes as a collection of imaginative tableaux in the city.”
Not unlike Bachor’s pothole mosaics, they seek to re-frame and expand on our commonplace and usually frustrated view of potholes, and of the everyday inconveniences and inconsistencies in the world around us, and I think they succeed. The Alice in Wonderland shot above seems particularly apt, as it reminds us that adventure and surprise are often hidden in the shadows and in the unexplored or unnoticed moments and twists of everyday life. Davide Luciano is a New York photographer and filmmaker and Claudia Ficca is a New York food stylist. They were married in 2009 and frequently work together professionally.
The Toynbee Tiles in DC
In DC, you may have seen or heard of the phenomenon of over 600 Toynbee Tiles, which are named for bearing the phrase, “TOYNBEE IDEA,” and which were laid in place by an anonymous Philadelphia born artist. What I find fascinating about these is the incognito and slow burn method used to apply them, which is described by Toynbee tile photographer Steve Weinik in this way:
“the tile was in the center of a layered package of tar paper and held together by glue. The bundle was then adhered to the street with a kind of road tar…Over time, the top layers of tar paper are worn away. By the time the tile is revealed, it’s thoroughly embedded into the street.”
If you’d like to learn more, you can watch a documentary about them called, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.
Here’s one more fun street-level piece created in Boston by artist and architect Nate Swain:
We don’t often expect to find a beautiful artwork right underfoot. By focusing on overlooked areas and points of view in our cities, these artists and projects surprise, delight, and inform us. They have the power to creatively draw our attention to important social issues such as homelessness, and also to remind us that creativity and inspiration saturate our world from the ground up.