Using the Urban Landscape “As a Canvas”

in Features

As you walk through the streets of Gibraltar you will have noticed more and more a proliferation of murals and paintings on the sides of buildings or in underpasses. Maybe not so much graffiti, but more like artwork that makes you smile, inspires you or lifts your emotions. 

Drawings on walls first appeared thousands of years ago in caves and were then used by the Ancient Romans and Greeks. The word ‘graffiti’ was originally a technical term for the ancient handwritten inscriptions, either electoral propaganda or general graffiti, that were scratched into plaster found in the ruins of Pompeii.  Fast forward to the 1920s when street art started showing up in New York in the 1920s where gangs would graffiti their ‘tags’ on public property or the sides or trains.  

Most of us have heard of Banksy, the British “guerrilla” street artist who has achieved international fame through his controversial, and often politically themed, signature style stencilled pieces and whose works have been sold for millions of pounds. But decades before Banksy became infamous, American artist and social activist Keith Haring was daubing the New York subway system with chalk drawings in the 1970s and 80s. Haring’s artwork began showing in galleries, and he is now regarded as a leading figure in the New York East Village art scene. Look out for his vibrant, colourful and bold images featuring barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts and Mickey Mouse. 

Banksy’s success was built partly on his anonymity and the myths that built up around him, but French artist Blek le Rat, whose real name is Xavier Pro, claims that Banksy may well have plagiarised his work and that he invented the life-sized stencil technique that Banksy would later use to make his name. There is no doubt that some of the images used by Banksy, such as rats, and life-sized images of men and soldiers, were initially found in Blek le Rat’s work. 

So how is street art different from graffiti? Both can be executed without the permission of the owners of the buildings or properties that they use to put their artwork on. Traditionally, graffiti artists would make work that used to be considered vandalism but in recent years they have used their art to make a point or send a message that will make people stop in their tracks and to provoke discussion. 

Street art is more a form of art expression, sometimes commissioned, often portraying complex and beautiful scenes and is something which has become an integral element of contemporary art and has rooted itself in communities.

Have you noticed that Gibraltar has been looking a little more colourful over the past few years? Back in 2017 the Government introduced a street art / graffiti initiative as part of its urban regeneration programme with the aim of revitalising areas that required redevelopment and was an attempt to improve the physical appeal of building façades with a popular form of public art. 

Artist Ben Eine who had made a name on the London underground graffiti scene for his multi-coloured letter prints was the first to kick start the scheme with his street art mural on the wall at Ince’s Hall Theatre where the words ‘That’s Entertainment’ are painted on the building’s façade.

Another initiative by the Gibraltar Cultural Services was a competition for local artists in 2018 to create murals to decorate some of the streets around town. Eleanor Taylor Dobbs won the opportunity to undertake a mural lining the wall of Fountain Ramp. Eleanor collaborated with children to complete the work, inspired by ‘A Book Called Hope’ by Quentin Blake and John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, which explored concepts of freedom and justice.

A second street art mural by Eleanor Dobbs together with Jessica Darch entitled ‘Old Soldiers View’ adorns Prince Edward’s Gate. The work depicts a landscape of ruins, defences and distant views and was inspired by the multi-layered history of Gibraltar as if perceived at the Gate in 1790.

You will surely have noticed that the tunnel by Irish Town and Chatham Counterguard has been transformed into a calm paradise and lets you escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre with a mural entitled ‘Make a Wish’ by Geraldine Martinez. Some of the mural is in black and white – representing pollution – but it then takes you through into a kaleidoscope of colour with a child who invites the passer-by to take a mindful moment and make a wish. Geraldine completed another mural recently, on the wall of the Queensway Nursery and will also be creating a mural on the Department of Education façade called ‘Touch the earth gently for all is connected’.

The Tunnel leading to the Alameda Gardens has a work entitled ‘Young Explorers’ by Paul Bush that was inspired by his sense of childhood wonder at the Botanical Garden that he grew up near and is his depiction of the landscape and wildlife to be found there.  There is no doubt that the murals have enhanced the environment and made the streets of Gibraltar more welcoming and walkable to not only those who live here but also to visitors and tourists. 

Graffiti and street art can be controversial and prompt discussion, but they can also tell stories that combine history and present-day culture, acting as a direct comment on the local environment and society and bringing communities together.  Make sure to have a look at Gibraltar’s street art as you wander round town. 

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