What Does Street Art Have to Do With Loving Where You Live?

A lot, it turns out.

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Richmond VA

Courtesy of Tom Woodward under a CC 2.0 license.

“Are you all moved in?” That’s what friends and neighbors have asked on repeat since the day six months ago that my family moved to a new house. Not to brag, but our answer has been yes for ages. Boxes are unpacked, drawers arranged, silverware sorted. Even the cardboard got recycled. We’re not ones to let chaos linger for long.

With one exception. The art. The art has not entirely moved in.

By art I mean family photos, framed prints, a large-scale map purchased at Ikea eight years ago. That map? Stuffed behind the couch for now. Our wall mirror has yet to meet a wall. What artworks are up are only half up, leaned rakishly atop the piano or the fireplace mantel. We cross our fingers that a strong breeze doesn’t wipe the gallery clean.

Rule #1 of Moving, according to a military mom friend, is “Unpack your stuff.” All of it. And I’m six months in violation, telling myself that art doesn’t really count or matter, that its absence doesn’t affect my quality of life in this new place.

In actual fact, maybe art should come close to first on my unpacking list. Hanging your pictures is as close as humans come to feathering a nest the way birds do. You get a picture up on your wall and your brain says, “She put a nail in the drywall; I’m home.” It signals your mind and spirit to go ahead and get place attached. Visitors, too, take your measure faster. They know who you are by what you hang on your walls.

In our cities, art has the similar effect of making us feel at home and telling us what our town is like. Most of the time art says, “We have fun here.” Instagrammable murals, painted street planters and wacky crosswalks communicate that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Or maybe, “We take ourselves seriously enough to do things like that.”

Public art can foster economic development and strengthen community ties in a way that belies its expense. But as with anything we’re meant to look at it, in our own towns we stop seeing it after a while, allowing it to fade into the background. What does our art say about our town? We’re not sure. We haven’t noticed it in a while.

Here’s how I’m trying to find the art in my town, Blacksburg, VA: I start by noticing the downtown murals I’ve been blindly walking past, including my favorite Love Blacksburg mural. I track down the series of shiny Hokie statues in honor of Virginia Tech University’s mascot (sorry, a glorified turkey). I take photos of the 16 bronze froggies and the new storm drain murals meant to draw attention to local watersheds.

What does the art say about this place? That Blacksburg loves its university, loves its environment, loves its community, and loves art.

So do I. Maybe it’s time to make sure the pictures are all up on the wall.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melody Warnick is a freelance writer and the author of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. After rattling around among California, Utah, Mar... more

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