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Small Cities Dreaming of Street Art

Street art seems to be everywhere these days. Not just in the grimy back streets of major cities the world over, but increasingly in small cities and rural areas as well.

Trashure by Studio Giftig, winner of the Street Art Cities Award 2022

Apparently, the world's most beautiful piece of street art in 2022 can be found in Tilburg, a small city in the Netherlands with an increasingly large university attached. Tilburg used to be a textile city, but as cheap importants killed textile production from the 1950s onwards, new uses had to be found for the growing pool of unused factories. The city first repositioned itself as a 'modern industry city' as it tried to attract new, small scale manufacturing. In the 1990s Tilburg turned to culture, as Hans Mommaas and Nienke van Boom explained in their book Comeback Cities. A new pop venue, 013 opened, the old railway yards were transformed into a cultural cluster including the award-winning LocHal, and the city began to develop a portfolio of attractive cultural and sporting events.

The LocHal in Tilburg

Comeback Cities

Now it seems a further 'turn' is underway towards alternative culture and creativity. Apart from the award-winning mural Trashure by Studio Giftig, there are also guerilla events staged by Tilburg Cowboys, and the Red Head Days, the world's biggest gathering of redheads. This marks the growing combination of culture and creativity that is marking contemporary placemaking. Street art fits with this trend because of its alternative image, bottom-up ethos, flexibility and relatively low cost.

Street art is also splilling over into small cities and rural areas. Of the 100 nominees for the Street Art Cities Awards in 2022, 70 came from small cities. Many of these cities are also located in rural areas, as the countryside also seeks to benefit from the street art trend. Rural murals can be found on grain silos in Australia, hay bales in Northern Ireland and barns in Michigan.

Art-led redevelopment strategies that also used to be common in major cities are also appearing in smaller places. In our book Small Cities with Big Dreams we chart the success of Den Bosch in the Netherlands in staging a major programme of work by Hieronymus Bosch. The small city of Zaandam has followed suit by linking itself to the French artist Monet, who stayed there in 1871. As part of their programme, they have commissioned street art depicting scenes from Monet paintings.

Street art has come a long way from being illegal graffiti. Another example of once-marginalised cultural practices being taken up by the cultural mainstream. Where will the artists go next?

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