California’s Homeless: Creators of Art

Walking around big cities like San Francisco, a pop of color rarely goes unnoticed. The sides of buildings, bridges and the occasional billboard seldom stay blank for long; some call the spray paint adorning these surfaces graffiti, but others call it art.

Most of the art you see walking around such cities is often produced by low-income and homeless people. Without the means to buy formal supplies to make art, a can of spray paint easily does the trick. It’s not Banksy’s work.

This art always seems to exist without any recognition or formal appreciation; how is it possible to praise someone’s work when they remain anonymous? If street art didn’t cover bland surfaces of the city, much of the culture would evaporate with it.

In order to recognize and appreciate street art curated by the unrecognizable, the first step is to actually notice it and take in the message. Art gives insights into culture and individuals’ personal stories, struggles and inspirations.

One piece seen near San Francisco’s capitol building reads, “…and we’ll all need a place to call home.” Above are faces adorned with flowers and a red, abstract flames lines the bottom. Hiding behind the main piece of artwork is the word “shelter,” nestled behind the faces and nature scene, juxtaposed to a city skyline, giving a parallel of the Hollywood Sign.

Reading into this piece, the verbal message is clear. Looking further into the meaning, I could allude to the fact that we are all the same once put into the ground. The significance of the earthy scene and flames below is at first lively and refreshing, but seems morbid once it is dwelled on longer.

In comparison to art by the homeless, there is art about the homeless. An “augmented reality” project conducted in the Bay Area by Lava Mae, a nonprofit, and Zero 1, an art and technology network. Lava Mae brings mobile showers to people living in the streets.

The project claims that their augmented reality videos of homeless people aim to give everyday people insight into disadvantaged people’s lives.

“What we’re hoping happens is that through art, and through the artist’s ability to short-circuit the brain and go to the heart, that we connect with one another. We see that we have a shared humanity, that we are more alike than we are different,” said Amy Schoening, Lava Mae’s director of programming.

Though this statement may seem altruistic, it degrades the homeless more than anything. They shouldn’t have to be humanized, they are humans. The simple notion that people must have a deeper understanding that better-off individuals must get a further look into homeless people’s lives in order to feel sympathy for them is ridiculous. This very sentiment further pushes the notion that the less-fortunate are exactly that: less.

Exploited people are not an art exhibit for the privileged to enjoy.

Homeless people’s relation to art shouldn’t be at the benefit of the rich. In order to make change, appreciate art, specifically street art, that they are making, it’s necessary to give credit where credit is due, and has long gone unnoticed.

Street art is the product of a society craving expression without any other means to tell their stories and feelings through art. Appreciating a decorated city, while giving back to low-income individuals so they can live and create is the first step to mending this artistic invisibility; beauty can be on a garage door or in a gallery.

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About Author

I'm an advertising and public relations major in UNC's School of Media and Journalism with a double major in political science and a minor in women's and gender studies, graduating in 2021. I'm from Apex, North Carolina, which is just a hop and a skip down the road from Chapel Hill! After taking a couple of classes in the MJ School, I discovered a newfound passion for writing. As a person who writes music and stand-up comedy, writing for the arts section has been such an amazing way to pull my passions together into something extremely tangible. In addition to my position at Coulture, I'm also the secretary for UNC Young Democrats and the public relations chair for Phi Sigma Pi.