Beauty and Pain: Street Art’s Contribution to Gentrification

Student Ambassador Ivana Wijedasa reflects on her time in Madrid, Spain and speaks about the effects of street art on communities.

My eyes fixated on a large mural depicting bright rainbow colors and the head of a monkey with the illusion of being 3-Dimensional. The mural painted against the building’s wall, whose original purpose, beyond displaying this work of art, is unknown. The colorful mural is hard to miss amongst a street filled with monotonous gray and red brick buildings. Street Art has become increasingly popular over time and was originally a form of social and political commentary through graffiti and murals. In Spain, “political street art has a long history as a communication tool in times of political changes.”1 During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, Pablo Picasso painted the Guernica. This mural has become one of the most popular examples of artwork portraying a political message as it criticizes war and the leadership of Franco.2 In the present day, street art and murals continue to convey political messages. Catalonians in Northern Spain have used graffiti to write words such as “Libertad”or “Freedom” on buildings to reiterate their calls for independence.3 However, street art has also veered towards becoming a tool for gentrification as developers commission murals and paintings to beautify neighborhoods and enhance their physical appeal.4 

The beauty of street art is unquestionable. It draws people’s attention and can transform a dull, grey, impoverished community into a bustling, bright tourist attraction. However, with the increasing popularity of beautiful street art comes the pain and possibility of gentrification. 

Photo by Ivana Wijedasa (Madrid, Spain) 

In the summer of 2019, I studied abroad in Madrid, and took a course entitled “Spanish Art History: From Al-Andalus to Picasso.” As a part of our class, we took a street art tour in the neighborhood of Lavapiés.  Lavapiés is a diverse community which is home to the Spanish working class and immigrants from South America, the Middle East, and various other regions. The population of Lavapiés consists of a large portion of immigrants and elderly people who are from lower-income backgrounds.5 As a result, the infrastructure of the neighborhood has typically been neglected by property owners, resulting in low quality housing. As a way to improve the physical appearance of this underserved community, developers contracted artists to paint murals on the deteriorating buildings. When we walked down the neighborhood streets, we were in awe of the unusual designs and figures painted throughout the town. Occasionally, we would stop and admire the art while the tour guide gave us an interpretation of what the artwork was supposed to mean or a little background on the artist. While stopped by one mural, a lady passing by on her bike came to a halt as she saw us, a group of 20 students, touring her neighborhood. I cannot recall the exact words the lady told us as she spoke in Spanish, but my professor later explained that her words consisted of complaints about us touring her neighborhood. She professed her concern of not being able to live there anymore as housing prices were increasing due to people like us touring her hometown to see the street art.    

Photo by Ivana Wijedasa (Madrid, Spain)

The increase in housing prices that this lady was experiencing was due to gentrification caused by the addition of beautiful street art to her low-income neighborhood. According to the Urban Displacement Project, gentrification is defined as “a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood —by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in – as well as demographic change.”6  Developers commission artists to create murals on the sides of buildings to reel in upper-class white adults.7 In this case, the investment in street art for Lavapiés had contributed to economic changes in the neighborhood by attracting higher-income residents to a typically lower-income area.  Resulting in rising house prices and potential displacement of former residents who can no longer afford to live there.

Photo courtesy Catherine McGloin

The use of street art as a means of gentrification is not unique to a small neighborhood in Spain, but happens around the world, including in our very own city of Boston. Areas such as Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston are among those that have gentrified partly due to the presence of street art.8 Now, as you admire beautiful street art, it is also important to recognize its contribution to gentrification and the pain of its beauty. Perhaps, new forms of policy need to emerge to prevent art from becoming a tool of displacement. 

1 Jonna Tolonen. 2017. “Power of Paint: Political Street Art Confronts the Authorities .” SAUC.

2 Editors, History.com. 2010. “Picasso’s “Guernica” is returned to Spain.” History. February 9. Accessed October 6, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/guernica-returned-to-spain.

3 Alfonso L. Congostrina. 2019. “Thousands of Officers on Hand to Protect Real Madrid-Barcelona Match.” El País. December 18. Accessed October 6, 2020. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/12/18/inenglish/1576662885_210080.html.

4 Bojan Maric. 2014. “The History of Street Art.” WideWalls. July 29. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/the-history-of-street-art.

5 Matthew Isaiah Feinberg. 2011. Lavapiés, Madrid as Twenty-First Century Urban Spectacle. PhD Thesis, University of Kentucky.

6 n.d. “Gentrification Explained.” Urban Displacement Project. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://www.urbandisplacement.org/gentrification-explained.

7 Claire del Sorbo,. 2019. “The Changes of Street Art in the Face of Gentrification.” Fresco Collective. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://frescocollective.org/articles/2019/1/11/changes-street-art-gentrification.

 8 Claire del Sorbo. 2019. “The Changes of Street Art in the Face of Gentrification.” Fresco Collective. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://frescocollective.org/articles/2019/1/11/changes-street-art-gentrification.

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