Stephen Harwood: Street art can be tourist draw

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The Evening News article on the Edinburgh tram route being hit by graffiti, and the comments received, draws attention to the expression of contemporary urban culture, and the divided opinion about whether this is “street art” or “vandalism”.

Having regularly photographed the boards around the Caltongate site for the past few months, there appears some quality work that would not go amiss in an art gallery. Please be clear, I am not saying it is all good and the Bankhead bridge work is open to question. However, even this work draws attention to the skill and imagination of those who mysteriously appear and disappear, accessing, at times, locations which to many of us appear inaccessible.

Sadly, what characterises this form of expression is that it is often here today and gone tomorrow, painted over with yet another work. That these have been produced by so-called “vandals” misses the point. This form of expression, which incidentally is legal on the Caltongate boards, when done well is very good and does liven up an otherwise drab location.

Indeed, is this form of expression any worse than those controversial art forms that emerged under the name of “modern art”, typified by the cubists or surrealists?

I would like to suggest that there is a place for street art in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, home of the Scottish Enlightenment, host to one of the world’s biggest festival jamborees and a World Heritage site. For a city that has only around 600,000 residents, it offers one of the richest cultural feasts that one can find worldwide, with every form of art to be found. Well, almost. What about more formal recognition of street art, particularly in the Old Town? Street art exists in other cities.

Having visited and photographed all 76 Royal Mile closes this summer, I have found a number of hidden treasures. I have also seen eyesores. Could controlled street art transform these eyesores? For example, could the High Street entrance to Fleshmarket Close become a visitor attraction as a result of quality street art? Could there be a visitor trail of quality street art?

I do not propose a free-for-all and I am opposed to unleashed or random tagging that defaces and correctly gets labelled as graffiti but also is regarded as vandalism. Instead, there is an opportunity to provide talented local street artists with space to express themselves in the unconventional manner of their specialised art form. “Legal” spaces in controversial spaces.

Talented local street artists have the potential to improve the dead or derelict spaces that can be found, especially in the Old Town. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, they can provide some form of expression for the Old Town community that is hidden from the tourist gaze, reclaiming back that which the tourist dominates.

Stephen Harwood is a faculty member of the Edinburgh University Business School.