Malaga, Street Art and the Counter Culture - Or why art doesn't love you anymore


Obey watches over Malaga. A giant mural of the world renowned street artist tower next to a piece by D*Face on the side of two bleak housing towers. “The power of imagination makes us infinite” is written on the wall beneath by Boamistura. A walk around the neighbour hood puts me and Isa in awe. With every turn a new piece of astounding beauty reveals itself.
El Perchel Bridge painted by Felipe Pantone
by belgian street artist ROA
Picasso inspired piece by Belìn (who we have previously written about)
Some of my favourite pieces come from local artist Dadi Dreucol (Check out his website here). His unique and subdued style often features a half nude, bearded man that, according to the artist, depicts a person who refuses to follow the rules laid down in the city. He is an emblematic character that represents human beings' existential essence. When he is not producing magnificent street art and murals he vents about the neoliberalization and tourist commodification of Malaga on his blog.
Various works by Dadi Dreucol
The number of high quality and large murals is surprising for a touristic Spanish coastal town. Next to some of these pieces is a little plaque. Most street art pieces were commissioned by the district in a branding strategy. The district of Soho is trying to establish itself as an ‘artist neighbourhood’. These branding strategies are a defining feature of how cities have to operate nowadays. As travelling has become affordable and fast, the tourism industry established a quite competitive market for cities worldwide. On the other hand, globalization allows the upper middle class to be established and working in any part of the world. Therefore, municipalities battle to present their cities as multi-faceted as possible: for tourism, for culture, to work and live.
What is so ironic is that street art used to be a genuinely counter cultural project. It gave people a way to articulate and to express themselves in public space. The pieces in SoHo are commissioned to international superstars of the scene and not to local artists. And while this marketing might appear harmless it covers very exclusionary tendencies. Dadi Dreucol calls attention to this on his blog, where he says that street art has become part of the neoliberal city managment that is no longer serving the residents but is aimed for profits in the tourist industry. Local artist and activist Ventura is worried that the local ways of living and traditional relationships of neighbours will dissapear in areas that become popular because of street art. He thinks street art is a great way of making an area more beautiful and foster relationships between neighbours but only if it's done in a way that serves the local residents. He lives in Lagunillas, an area also known for its street art and struggle with gentrification. It alls started with the project 'Fantasia de Lagunillas' for kids to paint on the walls. They want an area for the residents and "not for tourists, superficial pilgrimage, instagram filters and big business." The pieces in the area feature local celebrities and a wonderful work by Mallakai (who Isa recently interviewed for the blog)
Los parajos de Lagunillas by Mallakai
Bartender and local legend Príncipe Gitano in Lagunilla
Artist have always been a driver of making districts cool, but more as a side effect. It is a systemic issue that individuals can do little about. In this instance however the blatant strategy of the city government is foster gentrification, which contrary to popular believe will not result in a trickle down to the less fortunate but to the hardening of social disparity. These pieces are not sign of a liberal approach to citizens interacting the environment on their own terms. This commissioned work serves as eye candy in a shopping street, while local artists still have to sneak around at night and face unreasonable charges. The government actively promotes for rents to go up and tries to attract wealthy people to the arty vibe, a process that has been described as Piccasozation in reference to the Malaga born superstart Pablo Picasso. Culture becomes more and more a servant to the market and Obeys works, in the view of Rogelio Lòpez Cuenca is nothing more than "a domesticated, comercialized, white, superficial, name collecting culture."
Another OBEY in Soho's shopping street
Street art was born in an effort of revolt. It is a reasonable response against a capitalist system that plasters the streets with advertisement. Painting the urban surfaces is less of a crime than the constant bombardment with images and messages of consumption. Companies that can afford the space have a privileged position in public space that is not attainable for the average citizen. Street art opens up this venue for the less wealthy and for a form of commodified public communication and art. With ad-busting consumer culture is under direct attack but art can also alleviate some of the solitude that urban space produces. It conjures magical worlds that at least can make someone lift their head for a second. Sometimes it’s a crude art opposing the civilized aesthetics of high brow art world but its always a direct symbol of self-expression and a very immediate creative interaction with the environment.
In Malaga street art merely symbolizes this resistance. What it is relly there for is to show a creative vibe and an authentic place. Authentic art is motivated by inherent motivation but these commissioned pieces ultimately are directing towards profits in the tourist industry and increases in rent prices. Like many processes in capitalism gentrification is based on exploitation. Most obviously the tenants that won’t afford to live in a gentrified neighbourhood but also the young creatives that work to valorize urban space for the profit interest of real estate owners. 
On the left is an 'illegal' piece of a masked woman with a raised fist saysing 'all for one'. On the right side is a commisoned piece of Spanish artist PEJAC.
Gentrification is not a given and artist have always been at the forefront of changing the face of the city. And maybe the city of Malaga is concerned about this processes too and encourages this street art together with a focus on preserving the current social structure. The beautiful murals can be enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. And promoting and championing this artform is certainly worthy of praise and does turn desolate places into public galleries.
What triggered this critical rant was the museum for contemporary art in Malaga. Also situated in the Soho district it was build in the same attempt to rebrand the city. We decided not to go inside because we couldn’t afford the entry fee. Instead we walked around it to closer examine the OBEY and D*Face murals that are situated right behind it.  As we reach the back Isa points me to the side of the museum. “You are gonna enjoy this”, she says as I join her. The side of the museum is partly covered and beneath the cover the museum constructed a concrete block pattern to make sure that no homeless person could sleep there.
This attempt to design against the homelessness is a well-known method by now. ‘Defensive architecture’ is an attempt to make poverty invisible. Not only do they make it physically impossible to remain for too long but they signal who is welcome here. “Other people might not see it, but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here,” says Ocean Howell, who teaches architectural history at the University of Oregon. He continues that “they draw attention to the way that managers of spaces are always designing for specific subjects of the population, consciously or otherwise,” he says. “When we talk about the ‘public’, we’re never actually talking about ‘everyone’.” These measures don’t address the underlying problem of homelessness. They simply shift it from one area to another, or worst still, reduce its visibility. 

But the city needs this visibility to remember that we don’t live in a sterile bubble. And while it is not surprising that politics does not care about the homeless, a group heavily and unrightfully marginalized, it is infuriating that art doesn't stand in solidarity with them. They are the lowest rung of the urban hierarchy, seldom looked at and now removed from sight for a sterile consumer experience. It reveals how little society thinks of poverty as a social problem and more as an individual failure. “It is the aggregated, concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit” writes Alex Andreou, a former homeless himself. The bricks keep the tourist and the people higher up guilt free about their own behaviour. 

But especially art should be that force that reminds us of the sick system we live in. In his counter cultural classic “One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society” Herbert Marcuse argues that the main task of art is to call attention to the existential alienation that the individual has to endure in modern society. For Marcuse, art should always contain a form of protest and hint at alternatives ways of being. Art can make the invisible visible again and challenge arbitrary orders and hierarchies. Evocatively he writes that art “has to endure to be and remain the contradiction - be the dissatisfied conscious of the broken world, of the thwarted possibilities, of the unfulfilled hopes, of the broken promises.”
Art should be in the corner of the weak and vulnerable, comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. But instead it fuels gentrification and social exclusion and kicks the homeless from its doorstep.

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