Street art was once considered an underground past-time and those who chose to express themselves through the medium were often branded as little more than vandals – although the artists themselves do not always see this as an insult, some even choose to call their work ‘smart vandalism’. Things began to change in the 70s and 80s as gifted artists slowly found prominence. Sites like Bowery and Huston Street in New York became known as places where up and coming artists could showcase their talents and perhaps even, one day, be accepted by the real art world. Artists like Keith Haring found international fame and has made many an art dealer very happy. Elsewhere talents like Eric Haze crossed over into the world of graphic design with their work gracing everything from album covers to running shoes. In the last decade Bristol boy BANKSY has taken the art-world by storm and the commercial hunder for his work is such that unscrupulous dealers are chiselling his stuff off of walls to sell in their galleries for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Even the Bowery is now privately managed and only accepts works by commissioned or invited artists.
If you get a chance to talk to the artists themselves, like the very wonderful ‘Phlegm’ who features in this magazine, you find they the majority of them are rarely motivated by fame and money. Many are disgusted by the way their art-form has been turned into yet another commodity to be traded by rich, unimaginative losers. BANKSY famously got a guy to sell his work on the street of New York last year for just $60 a piece in protest against the commercial art world. Thankfully there is an ever growing (quite literally) branch of street art where it is much harder for the money-men to cash in. Absolutely anyone and everyone can enjoy this art; in fact you don’t even have to be human to benefit from it. Not only that but anyone and everyone can get involved with making it too. You can even take it home with you without some mugger in a suit charging you £100,000. And, if your sensible, you can even eat it!
Guerrilla Gardening (GG) was also born during the 70s – 1973 to be precise – in the Bowery and Huston Street area of New York when Liz Christy and her group of ‘Green Guerrillas’ transformed a derelict private lot into a lush green garden. It was the first community garden in New York. Forty years later the ‘Liz Christy Garden’ is home to the tallest Dawn Redwood tree in Manhattan. A true testament to the fact that the actions of a few dedicated individuals really can change things for the better.
Since Liz’s pioneering garden GG and the building of community gardens has spread around the world. Richard Reynold’s guerrillagardening.org is a great site to learn more and connect with other gardeners throughout the UK. But there’s another project – again pioneered in America – which is highly relevant to Doncaster. Ron Finley is from South Central Los Angeles, an area blighted by economic decline and a bad rep… think Donny with guns. Ron described the situation perfectly in a 2013 TED Talk (ted.com):
“I live in a food desert, South Central Los Angeles, home of the drive-thru and the drive-by. Funny thing is, the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys. People are dying from curable diseases in South Central Los Angeles … I got tired of seeing this happening. And I was wondering, how would you feel if you had no access to healthy food, if every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood? … So I figured that the problem is the solution. Food is the problem and food is the solution.”
Despite being a semi-rural area where people are surrounded by arable land, Doncaster too is a ‘food desert’ where it is often easier to get pizza and kebabs than it is to get potatoes and kale. So what’s the answer?
“So what I did, I planted a food forest in front of my house. It was on a strip of land that we call a parkway. It’s 150 feet by 10 feet. Thing is, it’s owned by the city. But you have to maintain it. … So me and my group, L.A. Green Grounds, we got together and we started planting my food forest, fruit trees, you know, the whole nine, vegetables. … And the garden, it was beautiful.
And then somebody complained. The city came down on me, and basically gave me a citation saying that I had to remove my garden … And I’m like, “Come on, really? A warrant for planting food on a piece of land that you could care less about?” … L.A. Times got ahold of it. Steve Lopez did a story on it and talked to the councilman, and one of the Green Grounds members, they put up a petition on Change.org, and with 900 signatures, we were a success. We had a victory on our hands….
L.A. leads the United States in vacant lots that the city actually owns. They own 26 square miles of vacant lots. That’s 20 Central Parks. That’s enough space to plant 725 million tomato plants. Why in the hell would they not okay this? Growing one plant will give you 1,000, 10,000 seeds. When one dollar’s worth of green beans will give you 75 dollars’ worth of produce. It’s my gospel, when I’m telling people, grow your own food. Growing your own food is like printing your own money.
See, I’m an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. I grow my art. Just like a graffiti artist, where they beautify walls, me, I beautiful lawns, parkways. I use the garden, the soil, like it’s a piece of cloth, and the plants and the trees, that’s my embellishment for that cloth. You’d be surprised what the soil could do if you let it be your canvas. You just couldn’t imagine how amazing a sunflower is and how it affects people.
To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil. You’d be surprised how kids are affected by this. Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do… Plus you get strawberries.”
If you’re inspired by Ron Finley and the fine art of Guerrilla Gardening then you’re in luck. Doncaster already has the Doncaster Urban Growers (DUG), who are busy planting areas around Doncaster and coordinating ‘urban farming’ food growing projects. You can get a hold of them via The PermaFuture Project – firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you want something a little more adventurous, underground and unafraid of authority then there’s always Greenjacking 😉