The Impact of Street Art on Wellbeing

Girl street artist on wall opposite East Dulwich Station

Is street art a blight on the urban landscape or colourful fun that’s good for the soul? What is the impact of street art on wellbeing?

I love street art and, fortunately for me, in the past two years my part of south London has been transformed into something of a street art mecca.

The Dulwich Festival, Stik and Baroque the Streets

It started last year, with the Dulwich Festival, when street artist Stik reinterpreted some of the works in the Dulwich Picture Gallery on walls around Dulwich. There were Stik works on the sides of shops, on people’s houses, garage doors, and in Dulwich Park.

This year the Dulwich Festival hosted a far more ambitious street art festival in the form of Baroque the Streets. Famous street artists from all over the world descended on Dulwich to reinterpret works from the Dulwich Picture Gallery on buildings in the Dulwich area.

The streetart house at 265 Lorship Lane East Dulwich

The street art house at 265 Lordship Lane

The street artists were also given free reign over a house in Lordship Lane that was due to be demolished and allowed to transform it into a sort of street art gallery.

the mushroom room The effect was amazing. The house was open to the public for one weekend only and it was really exciting and inspiring to wander from room to room and see entire rooms from floor to ceiling transformed by street artists.

It was such a different experience from looking round an art gallery. Here the house was the embodiment of the street; no surface was left untouched, it was art meets interior design meets the street. A house without furniture, just art.

Why Street Art in Dulwich?

Street artists usually work outside of the establishment painting on abandoned buildings or walls in neighbourhoods that are derelict and in decline. In fact, in many cities, the influx of street artists has been associated with gentrification as people flock to the ‘cool’ areas and they become trendy and popular.

Dulwich is not normally associated with street art or urban decline and it’s already gone through its gentrification process. In fact, to most people Dulwich represents boring, middle class suburbia. The streets are overrun with SUVs, the pavements with prams and every second shop in Lordship Lane is an estate agents.

But Dulwich has something which many areas of London do not. It has an art gallery, The Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has built a loyal, local community around it, and it has great people who live here and want the best for the area.

One of these people is my friend and neighbour, Ingrid Beazley who had the vision of bringing street art to Dulwich and, together with Richard Howard-Griffin of Street Art London, worked tirelessly to bring the project to fruition. Ingrid not only has great vision and passion when it comes to art, but she is also a bit of a rebel at heart and loves nothing more than stirring things up a little and going against the grain.

Not everyone in Dulwich has welcomed the idea of street art. You only have to look on the East Dulwich Forum to see some of the debate around the issue, but now that it’s here I think you can’t help but be aware of the positive impact on the area.

Does Street Art have a Positive Impact on Wellbeing?

eyes painted on a garden side door

All this got me wondering if street art can have a positive impact on people and communities.

Writing in The Guardian, Tim Smedley poses the question: Banksy, Gormley or Hirst: is public art good for the nation’s wellbeing? and cites a quote from Alex Coulter, director of the arts advocacy organisation Arts & Health South West who says:

“Particularly when you look at smaller communities or communities within larger cities, [public art] can have a very powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and locality. A lot of sculptures are related to the local history in some way, and I think they can give people a connection to their place and a sense of continuity.”

In the same article Clive Parkinson, director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, and chair of the National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing is quoted as saying:

“…street festivals, where people take to the streets and witness giant spiders walking across buildings or dancing elephants, have a profound effect on people’s health and wellbeing [by] building a sense of community and addressing issues such as isolation … As we seem divorced from any sense of community, we’re increasingly isolated, so public art and public engagement is a vehicle for bringing people together.”

They Are Coming…

scarecrows outside Dulwich Library

They Are Coming…

This all makes sense. At the same time as the Baroque the Streets Festival was taking place, Southwark Council, association with Sometime Soon Arts, helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Dulwich Festival by sponsoring a fantastic installation of scarecrows all over the area.

The project was called ‘They Are Coming…’ and for weeks beforehand notices appeared around Dulwich announcing ‘They Are Coming…’

Nobody knew who or what was coming, so a wonderful sense of mystery was set up and then one day scarecrows began appearing around the area and then disappearing. A few scarecrow figures would be placed on a street corner or a pub for a few hours or a day and then moved to a different location.

The wonderful thing about the ‘They Are Coming…’ project is that it involved approximately 400 local residents, including artists, community groups and school children and each scarecrow was based on a person associated with Dulwich such as Edward Alleyn, Enid Blyton and even a hermit who used to live in Dulwich Woods.

According to Alex Coulter, director of the arts advocacy organisation Arts & Health South West, public art works are more likely to achieve a positive reaction by involving the local community, “anything from consultation with local communities through to in some cases people contributing to the making of the final object.

There is a lot of evidence that the participatory process is very beneficial for self-confidence, for self-esteem and for general wellbeing.”

Street Art takes Art from the Gallery to the Streets
Street art in East Dulwich side street

Side street in East Dulwich

From my point of view, the street art has brightened things up and enriched the area. On my walk to and from the gym I pass quite a few of the street art works and they never fail to put a smile on my face. Bland walls are now bright and cheerful, and the side streets of East Dulwich now have a direct link with the Dulwich Picture Gallery a mile or so away in Dulwich Village.

I love the fact that art is now everywhere in Dulwich. It’s hanging on the walls of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and it’s also on the walls of the streets. It’s there for everyone to see and to appreciate, to love or to hate.

It’s difficult to assess what impact the street art has had on the mental health and wellbeing of the residents of Dulwich but judging from the smiles on the faces of people at the street art house in Lordship Lane, the conversations I’ve had with local residents, and my own joy in seeing colour and images in otherwise bland, grey spaces, I’d say it’s had a positive impact. Dulwich is a much brighter place.

Not only that, Dulwich is ‘cool’. It’s on the London art map and if you’re doing a street art tour you definitely have to leave the edginess of East London and head down south.

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