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  • Danielle Foushée

Street Art Hunting: Instagram & the Gamification of Creative Placemaking

Published 2019: User Experience & Urban Creativity Scientific Journal, open access


1. Introduction I move around a lot, so I know well the feeling of displacement. Finding a sense of place and belonging can be elusive even in familiar locations, and even more challenging to find in a completely new environment with its own geographies and cultures. When I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2016, I didn’t know anyone. I had only visited once before, so when I relocated there, I knew finding my people would take some effort. The first strategy I used to find my bearings was simply to start walking. Exploring the city on foot makes things visible in ways that speeding by in a car doesn’t. I experienced the city with all my senses—noting not only its visual character, but also its sounds, smells, and textures. During my treks around Phoenix, I was most surprised and delighted when I would turn a corner or glance down an alley to find murals, drawings, and graffiti writing. I became obsessed with walking different routes each time I ventured out, looking for the city’s street art. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I began to post photos of the art on Instagram, I unintentionally joined the game of “Street Art Hunting.” Playing this game has been a key factor in developing my sense of home in Phoenix. Street Art Hunting can be classified as a type of Creative Placemaking activity. The game fosters sense of place through the spontaneous emergence of digital and physical interactions between artists, their audiences, and the city itself. Street artists and street art seekers play together, each taking on different roles at different times—sometimes the hunter, sometimes the gatekeeper, other times the foil. The game has no official name and no written rules. In fact, it isn’t even discussed. Participants enter into it by virtue of their shared interest in street art, their motivation to experience the art in real life, and their delight in sharing their progress on Instagram. In Phoenix, the impromptu social networks created through Street Art Hunting connect people online and in person. It’s played in cities world-wide, so the communities built in Phoenix also co-facilitate playful relationships between people all over the world. From my perspective as a scholar in Visual Communication and as a Street Art Hunter, I want to understand the ways in which communities create both virtual and physical places by playing together with the images they make. For this case study, I used a combination of qualitative methods including ethnography, informal interviews, visual observation, and field research. I examined the ways in which Phoenix-based street artists and their audiences engage with one another via Instagram. As a researcher, my experience as an embedded, participant observer provides an insider’s perspective of the community, its unique customs, and its unspoken rules. This paper has three parts. In the first, I’ll share an overview of the practice of Creative Placemaking and examine both beneficial and problematic ways it impacts cities. In part two, I’ll illustrate the shortcomings of Creative Placemaking through a close look at the history and cultural context of urban art in the streets worldwide. And finally, in part four, I’ll show you how the Street Art Hunting game already accomplishes the goals of formalized Creative Placemaking efforts in Phoenix without institutional intervention. I will argue that street artists in Phoenix are doing the work of placemaking in ways that are racially, economically, and socially inclusive, and perhaps more potent than so-called Creative Placemaking interventions by governments, institutions, and other official means.

Artist Denzone for Phoenix Mural Festival 2018 (photo: Danielle Foushée) 2. Creative Placemaking “Creative Placemaking” is a relatively new buzzword used to describe a longstanding practice, namely, the ways in which artists engage with cities and communities to develop and enhance the lovable qualities of a place. In government and academia, the term usually refers to a formal relationship/partnership between an artist or artist collective and a community-based organization, business, or government entity that exists to accomplish certain social goals—most commonly economic development. Who is included and excluded in placemaking initiatives is an important factor that shapes communities around the world. “Sense of Place” is a concept that enjoys widespread discussion across many sectors including urban planning, community development, economics, healthcare, and the arts. Since the Industrial Revolution, people have become more uprooted, more mobile, and less tied to a specific geographic location. The growth of international brands over the past 100 years has also contributed to a kind of homogenous landscape in which companies across the globe offer the same goods and services in the same ways, everywhere. On one hand, the similarities found in different locations by transitional populations creates a sense of familiarity, but on the other, places no longer feel special or unique. Organizational and environmental psychologist Fritz Steele meditated on the characteristics of place in his seminal book, The Sense of Place, in 1980. These criteria include: strong location, boundaries, geographic distinctiveness, scale and proportion, plus rich identity and imagery (Steele, 1981, pp. 53–62). While these physical attributes of a location are important, Steele (and others) also promotes the idea of a special “spirit” that must be present for cultivating a sense of place. This spirit, he claims, is defined by several qualities: choices and options, memories and fantasies, vitality, and personalization (Steele, 1981, pp. 183–199). The practice of Creative Placemaking involves activating these characteristics of place using arts and culture as the catalysts. Since the publication and widespread popularity of Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, artists have gained recognition as important contributors to the success of cities. Florida (2002) defines the Creative Class as the professionals working in “science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content” (Florida, 2002, p. 9). More recently, Florida published a follow-up book that highlights the shortcomings of his original thesis. In The New Urban Crisis, he points out the community devastation that can occur without well-planned and executed economic development interventions (Florida 2017a). Despite his recent statements contradicting his original ideas (Florida, 2017b), the idea of the Creative Class is now widely accepted as a primary driver of contemporary urban economies, often without critique. Over the past two decades, academics, bureaucrats, and industry executives have argued that the hierarchical, top-down approach of the industrial age no longer promises desirable outcomes. In For the Love of Cities, community development expert Peter Kageyama (2011, p. 41) states, “Things that make communities interesting and loveable don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. What they do require is insight and sensitivity to the idea that we are building emotional connections with our citizens—not just paving roads, expanding our tax base, and collecting garbage”. Google understands that creativity, flexibility, and humanity are key elements for success in today’s world. The company is well-known for its inward-facing research that examines corporate culture, defines success measures, and determines best practices. One such study showed that Kageyama’s intuition was correct—people connect with other people, not with statistics and systems. To determine the characteristics of the best workplace managers, Google conducted a study of over 10,000 manager data points. They were surprised to find that technical skill came in last as a predictor of success. Instead, they noted that the best leaders exhibited the most EQ, or emotional intelligence (Schneider, n.d.). It’s the soft-sell, personal relationships that create a sense of place and connection, not the nuts and bolts of day-to-day activities. This is the overarching theme of Creative Placemaking. `Armed with this evidence, city and business leaders realize the need to address community concerns with innovative and unexpected interventions that synthesize many points of view. Some qualities of creativity—like divergent thinking, playfulness, and social connection—can breed a sense of uncertainty for people in traditional administrative roles. In response to their unfamiliarity with creative processes, seats at community and economic development tables may be offered to artists, designers, and other creative professionals. In its 2016 publication, How to Do Creative Placemaking,U.S.-based National Endowment for the Arts (NEA, 2016, p. 1–3) outlines the practice. Jason Schupbach, the book’s editor and former director of Design Programs at the NEA, highlights the organization’s support for Creative Placemaking activities. The focus is on bringing artists together with urban planners, transportation managers, community organizers, and other officials to address specific social or structural concerns within existing bureaucratic systems. Roberto Bedoya, cultural affairs manager for the City of Oakland, critiques this hierarchical approach to Creative Placemaking. He points out the reality that “before you can have places of belonging, you must feel you belong” (Bedoya, 2013). He highlights the complex history of placemaking, in which efforts to create places benefitted some groups and served to control others. As examples, Bedoya recalls the U.S. government’s historical policies of forced migrations of Native Americans and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (2013). In both instances, entire populations were forcibly removed from their homes to make way for new, more socially, politically, and economically powerful residents to recreate those places in their own image. Bedoya’s concern highlights how Creative Placemaking, when practiced carelessly, could easily become a facilitator for gentrification. The NEA uses its Our Town grants to support Creative Placemaking initiatives across the United States. Applicants must comply with a bevy of rules to fit within the funding requirements. The sources of these criteria are vague; possibly developed by arts administrators, business and political interests, and perhaps a smattering of citizen input. While these public servants’ intentions may be sincere, artists and organizations must necessarily shoehorn their work into somebody else’s idea of place if they want access to the funding that makes their work possible. Certain criteria, such as the requirement for matching funds and sponsorship by established arts organizations, can also build obstacles into the system that will lock out some would-be applicants altogether.

Artists Hugo Medina, Ryan Alexander, Carlos Mendoza for Phoenix Mural Festival 2018 (photo: Danielle Foushée) Street artists are especially vulnerable, even in Phoenix. Jurors and panelists may have bias against the urban arts, since these are commonly considered “low brow” or outside the boundaries of conventional arts formats and distribution channels. Street artists’ race, economic condition, immigration status, and educational attainment can create additional barriers to participation and access within established systems such as those funded by government agencies and wealthy donors. Creative Placemaking should welcome all kinds of participants. At the national, state, and local levels, leaders tend to prioritize the facilitation of formal partnerships between artists, governments, and organizations. However, Jenna Moran, program manager at National Association of Counties, envisions a wider scope. She writes, “Creative placemaking can take place anywhere—inside or outside an organization’s building. It does not matter what you call it—outreach, community engagement, creative placemaking, etc. What matters is that the work is being done” (NEA, 2016, p. 31). In Phoenix, artists and grass-roots activists have been doing the work of placemaking all along. Yet, they’re often overlooked among institutional advocates for Creative Placemaking. Many times, artists are already members of the communities they serve. Phoenix has a prolific, locally-based population of muralists and wall painters who usually work as independent agents—without institutional collaborators, wealthy funding sources, or approval through official channels. These street artists work towards a vision of place that comes from themselves and their neighbors. Their works are located in and comment on their immediate locations. One of the most important functions of street art is its creator’s ability to tell stories and share ideas within their communities and among their peers in public. Street artists’ independent creative interventions might align with outsiders’ ideas of the place. But it’s just as likely that the work contradicts or even resists those ideas, while at the same time portraying a more accurate picture of the place locals wish to see. 3. Street Art Street art is commonly associated with youth delinquency, vandalism, and other criminal activity. While muralism and graffiti as public art have existed in some form for millennia, the genre as it’s currently known was born in New York and Los Angeles in the 1970s (Deitch, 2011, p. 10). Cultural conditions came together to create environments where this underground art form flourished: the suburbs had succeeded in luring middle- and upper-class residents and their money from inner cities, quality jobs and educational opportunities were lost in urban areas, and the country suffered from political and economic uncertainty. The people left behind in urban centers were often people of color, immigrants, and other populations who commonly face systemic discrimination. Residents had little economic opportunity and basic services were neglected by officials. They lived among numerous abandoned buildings with little oversight from authorities. However dismal these conditions were, they also provided opportunities for black and Latino youth to exercise new freedoms and test their limitations after the Civil Rights Movement. These ‘forgotten’ places became canvasses where people could express themselves, share ideas, and build community. Street art became a powerful medium that unleashed new creative voices into the public sphere. These artists invented potent expressions of an alternative American experience, one that many powerful people hoped would stay underground and unexamined. As this new creative vernacular bled into mainstream culture, America’s dominant business and political classes resisted it by publicizing negative stereotypes about urban artistic production and by criminalizing its associated behaviors (Ferrell, 1993, p. 115–125). Authorities zeroed in on street artists and graffiti painters—their visual evidence became an easy target for social resentment and regaining control. Over the past 40 years, negative attitudes about street artists and their work have been hard to shake. Law enforcement continues to view graffiti as expensive property damage; even sanctioned murals and street art are often treated with suspicion or whitewashed. Officials prosecute artists harshly. In 2010, well-known Pittsburgh artist Daniel Monano (aka MF ONE) was convicted of graffiti vandalism. He spent time in prison and was sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service, plus $232,000 in restitution. In an interview during his incarceration, he said, “I always wanted the world to be a certain way, and when it wasn’t, I tried to force it. But I’m learning to accept the world the way it is. It’s greater than me and I’m never going to win” (Jones, 2010). On one hand, artists including MF ONE experience ongoing systematic punishment for their creative work. On the other, muralism, graffiti writing, and other kinds of street art have seen exponential growth in popularity and cultural influence over the past decade. As far back as 1994, Juxtapoz magazine began to offer some legitimacy to underground artists in California. Still in publication in 2018, it features skate- surf-, and hot rod-inspired work, in addition to graffiti, street art, and other illustration-based graphic forms. By 2009 it had higher circulation than any other art magazine in the U.S. due to its focus on popular culture, commercial arts, tattoos, and comics (Beato, 2009).Unlike high-end galleries and art dealers, the magazine continues to make art accessible by offering affordable ways for everyday people to buy and keep it for themselves. Several factors converged in 2010 that gave muralism, graffiti, and street art a bigger platform, resulting in an explosion of the genre’s critical and popular recognition. First, Timemagazine included the mysterious street artist Banksy on its list of “100 Most Influential People.” Shepard Fairey (2010), famous for his 2008 Obama Hope Presidential campaign poster design, wrote, “Banksy’s work embodies everything I like about art. It’s accessible, public, not locked away. He makes social and political statements with a sense of humor.” In 2011, French street artist JR won the prestigious $100,000 TED Prize to create his iconic “guerrilla art” installations (Kennedy, 2010). At the same time in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art was planning the first-ever large-scale exhibition devoted to graffiti, muralism, and global street art. Titled “Art in the Streets,” the show opened in early 2011 and provoked mania ranging from admiration and excitement to criticism and protest. Naysayers complained that the exhibition increased illegal activity in the areas surrounding the museum(Nagourney, 2011). Suddenly, street art was on the minds of vast numbers of unlikely patrons around the globe — and outside the usual art world channels. Also during this time, smart phones were becoming more ubiquitous, further democratizing photography and image-making across society. Social media became the default space where these images are published and shared. Six short years after its founding, Facebook dominated social media, boasting 500 million users by 2010 (Wauters, 2010). The photo sharing app, Instagram, came online that same year, and has grown to become one of the most popular social media platforms in 2018 (DeMers, 2018). Members of the street artist community often tell me that they wouldn’t know anyone if it weren’t for social media, especially Instagram. Another massive celebration of street art, “Tour Paris 13,” brought 105 artists together from around the world to paint every surface of an old apartment tower slated for demolition. Over seven months in 2013, they worked to transform the building into a massive collaboration that included over 400 works of art. The resulting exhibition was limited to 30 days, and more than 25,000 visitors waited up to 13 hours to enter (Lallier, 2016). Viewers documented their experiences of awe and excitement on social media: a quick search for the tag #tourparis13 on Instagram reveals over 10,400 images. One of the artist participants, Mear One from Los Angeles, told The Telegraph (2013), “We are the new artists. Graffiti art is the world’s biggest art movement. In the 1970s, art was so elite that only the upper level people could do art or appreciate. . . and now. . . this is the art form.” At the end of the 30-day exhibition, the building was demolished as promised. And just like that, everything they created was destroyed. 4. Street Art Hunting: The Game The City of Phoenix has a lot in common with other large street art cities worldwide. However, there are key differences that make it an ideal location for the Street Art Hunting game. Founded in 1881, Phoenix is a relatively young city. It recently became fifth largest city in the U.S. with a metropolitan of nearly five million residents. Local artists have tight-knit relationships regionally, but outside neighboring states, Phoenix is largely unknown as a prolific street art city with a one-of-a-kind visual language. According to an extensive Google Map created by Phoenix Mural Project, less than 5% of over 600 wall paintings were created by artists from outside the Southwestern United States. Phoenix is located in one of the most inhospitable regions of the United States—the Sonoran Desert. It’s typically the hottest city in the nation, averaging about 106°F (41°C) in July. Water is scarce, and is channeled from the Salt River into the oldest canal system in the Americas. The Hohokam people built it by hand starting around 600AD—long before European explorers colonized the Americas. Some of these canals are still in use today and sustain the growing population. Despite several hundred years of ongoing national government policies of eradication and oppression, Native American culture is omnipresent across the United States’ Southwest region. And Phoenix is one of the most diverse and fastest-growing cities in the country. The U.S. Census estimated in 2018 that people of color make up nearly 60% of the population. Also unusual in the United States, 37% of Phoenicians speak a language other than English at home. Social conditions like these—along with the city’s hyper-local network of artists—allow for large-scale cultural exchange and create a conducive environment for grass-roots Creative Placemaking through the Street Art Hunting game. It may seem counterintuitive to think about street art practice as a kind of Creative Placemaking. Along with its typical makeup of institutional partnerships, Creative Placemaking activists often mistakenly assume that community stability — a kind of permanence — is a desirable outcome. But street art is ephemeral by nature; it’s there one day and buffed out the next. And most street artists work independently, outside the boundaries commonly associated with both art and Creative Placemaking. Creative Placemaking purports to connect people — to bring neighbors together and build ties in physical spaces. But many street artists use monikers to mask their real identities. Because they often work at both ends of the legal spectrum, they may use their given name for approved public paintings and their pseudonym in other contexts. One might expect these factors to stymie efforts to create a sense of place, but they serve as the foundation for Street Art Hunting, a social media game that builds virtual and physical connections locally and around the world. Instagram serves as the gaming platform for Street Art Hunting and other “hide-and-seek” games. Jeroen Timmermans (2015), senior policy advisor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, describes the ways in which social media facilitates play. He writes, “Social network sites resemble games, because acting on them is characterized by a playful mood and has playful elements to it (humor, competition, teasing), but also because they constitute a world on their own. A world in which we can experiment a bit with our identity, without suffering immediate and direct consequences outside of the cybersphere” (Timmermans 2015, p. 289). Social media’s ability to render identity fluid is key to understanding its relationship to street artists and their paradoxical desire for both anonymity and recognition. The Street Art Hunting game on Instagram offers opportunities for both. Like most, I stumbled unwittingly into the game of Street Art Hunting. At first, I simply wanted to see more art in Phoenix’s streets. Each find was a thrill. Seeing the art in person was part of what made it so exciting. Eventually, I began to share images of the art I discovered on Instagram. The more art I found, the more curious I became. I followed the artists whose work I saw, because I wanted to see more of their work and learn about what motivates and inspires them. I also learned more about their social networks and personal lives. This progression, unbeknownst to me, was my initiation into Street Art Hunting. New players, myself included, usually have little to go on. They lack experience, so their first “finds” are often popular, sanctioned works in prominent places. Perhaps they encounter the art unintentionally. However, each find provides new information such as artists’ names or monikers and their Instagram accounts, and generates momentum for the next hunt. “All play has its rules,” declares Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1949, p. 11). Play must be bounded by a place and a time, and rules agreed upon by participants. Without parameters, there is no frame of reference for exercising one’s options, and players can’t anticipate the actions of others. Ian Bogost (2016, ch. 5), Georgia Tech professor and author of Play Anything, contends that the rules of the game are what draw us in. One of the primary requirements of Street Art Hunting is that players must avoid providing exact locations. Street Art Hunting, like scavenger hunting, is a game of aggregating clues that lead seekers to a specific physical location in search of a prize. The clues are provided by game participants through their Instagram feeds. The challenge is thrill of the hunt. The urgency is the fleeting nature of impermanent art. The effort is aggregating clues. And the prize is unraveling the mystery of place. Some would-be players hope to skirt the system, and use Instagram to ask other participants directly for paintings’ locations. The online community usually ignores these requests, effectively ostracizing the offender. Huizinga addresses this phenomenon when he describes the “spoil-sport,” who destroys the game itself: “he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community” (1949, p. 11). Without adherence to the game’s rules, social ties within the entire group become threatened and the community itself becomes vulnerable. It isn’t enough that a player figures out an artwork’s location, though, and then keep their find to themselves. The Street Art Hunter must publicize it. Artwork must be seen in person, photographed, and posted on Instagram for all to see, along with one’s own cryptic message about the experience of seeing it in person. The point is to acknowledge the inherent ephemerality of urban art and to emphasize that one cannot fully experience it except in person. The paradox between the secrecy around production and the potential for public accessibility is a key driver of audience engagement, participation, and social acceptance. Winners of the Instagram Street Art Hunt build trust and may eventually earn admission to the in-person club. Perhaps due to its association with social activism, illegal activity, and vandalism, street art culture is shrouded in mystery. This quality of secrecy inherent in games (Huizinga, 1949, p. 12) simultaneously incentivizes continued play for insiders and excludes the uninitiated. The rules of Street Art Hunting create barriers that police entry into the group, protect artists’ anonymity, and test community members’ commitment. Keeping street art sites secret can also extend the life of the artwork, especially if it was created without permission. The City of Phoenix spends over $2 million each year to fund its Graffiti Busters program (Zeng, 2018), contributing to the ephemerality of artworks in the city’s urban spaces. Interestingly, the tension between art-makers and art-removers adds to the allure of the Street Art Hunting game. Players are in a race against the clock; they don’t know exactly where an artwork lives, nor how long it will be there. Creative Placemaking occurs through the process of playing the game. Gamers visit unfamiliar neighborhoods to track down the art, and simultaneously gain a more complete perspective of the city itself. Light-hearted Instagram conversations begin to flow as a Street Art Hunter reaches new “levels” in the game, allowing personal, if virtual, relationships to form amongst both players and artists. As one new friendship turns into another, and another, other aspects of the Phoenix street art community are revealed, further deepening a sense of community and belonging. Diversity is a key feature of the game. I’ve observed and talked to Phoenix street artists of all ages, and from every economic background and education level. Some have formal arts training, and others developed their skills on the streets. Their racial makeup resembles the overall city’s population — something many conventional arts sectors cannot claim. For example, Hyperallergic reported in 2017 that 80.5% of artists represented by New York City galleries were white (Vartanian, 2017). In contrast, artists of color made up 55% of the participants in 2018’s Phoenix Mural Festival. Phoenix-based street artists live all over the city as well, and come from all kinds of neighborhoods. Embedded in the Street Art Hunting game is the opportunity to get outside one’s comfort zone and experience much of what a city has to offer. As players advance as Street Art Hunters, they prove themselves as worthy initiates into the in-person community. Hunters eventually gather enough knowledge of the city and evidence from Instagram to find works in progress or even catch an artist at a site while they’re working. Discoveries like these are rare and signal deep focus and dedication in the Street Art Hunter. Meeting an artist on site, in person, is exhilarating. That first personal introduction is the key to future meetups, and suddenly the player is welcomed into the community’s fold. Event invites start to roll in, messages are returned, and friendships are formed along the way. 5. Conclusion Street Art Hunting is Creative Placemaking — without institutional oversight, intrusion, or funding. Discovering art in the streets is only part of the joy of playing the game. It draws its players to unknown neighborhoods, offering a new perspective on a place they may have assumed they knew well. Participants learn new things about the place, and their bond with it deepens. They begin to see more of what is already there; find new appreciation for their neighbors and their contributions to the local culture; and create personal friendships across lines of race, language, or economic status. Street artists and Street Art Hunters don’t need officials or organizations to show them how to accomplish the goals of Creative Placemaking. Everyone who plays is already making the city what they want it to be — while making no effort to fit within some other framework from somewhere else. Street Art Hunting celebrates the city and its people as they are; not as those in power wish it would be. Familiarity and friendship breeds comfort, and we begin to really belong to a place when the two converge, as in the Instagram game of Street Art Hunting. I’ve lived in nine states, and who knows how many different neighborhoods in my lifetime. It was only after playing the Street Art Hunting game in Phoenix, Arizona that I ever felt as truly at home in a place as I do now.


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© 2023 by Danielle Foushée