Street Art on the Hillsborough Riverwalk: Public Creativity in an Increasingly Private Culture

Street art at Hillsborough Riverwalk

Last Friday, November 8th, I went to the Hillsborough Riverwalk in Hillsborough, North Carolina to check out some of the street art — or graffiti as it’s derogatorily called — under the Exchange Bridge, not far from downtown.

Map of Hillsborough Riverwalk

I’ve seen it many times in the past, including on a recent hike, but I’ve never devoted an entire blog post to it. So I’d like to change that today.

Another thing I’d like to change today is your perception of street art. Though it can be a nuisance in some instances, occasionally lewd or drug-inflected, it is for the most part an asset to the surrounding community. After all, these public displays of creativity are not only attractive to the eye and a boon to tourism; they are also vital expressions of an artist’s personal vision of the world, in all its messiness and beauty. And that is a gift.

Beyond the creativity that’s necessary for the conceptualization and execution of this kind of art, there’s also the culture of art itself which informs these works. Though it may seem a bit of a stretch, I would like to illustrate a few notable parallels between these works of street art and trends in popular culture through the ages. Some of these will be more obvious than others, but I’ll do my best to convince you, and by the end I hope you’ll come away with a greater appreciation for art and its role in our culture.

Coming from the public parking deck, the first piece of street art you’ll see along the Hillsborough Riverwalk is a small piece painted on the side of an old concrete base.

Skull figure on concrete base

It depicts a smiling skull with two arrows pointing up and a line pointing down. Though it’s very simple in execution, it’s quite effective in drawing the eye. Beyond that, it represents a mashup of cultural references that typifies street art.

On the one hand, there’s the reference to astrology in the form of a combined symbol for Venus (femininity, seen in the downward line) and Mars (masculinity, seen in the upward right arrow) that would seem to indicate a basic belief in the unity of all gender, and by extension the unity of all humanity.

On the other hand, there’s the reference to the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, in the smiling skull at the center. For those who may not know, the Danse Macabre was an artistic motif that arose around the time of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. Often showing the character of Death as a dancing skeleton with a smile on his face, the Danse Macabre was a way for people to emphasize the importance of enjoying life here and now, regardless of what the future might bring. Because you never know how long you have left.

The next piece of street art that meets the eye is on the south side of the Eno River, on one of the concrete moorings of the Exchange Bridge.

"Jang Escape" street art at Riverwalk

Stenciled in vibrant cobalt blue, the piece says “Jang Escape” and seems to indicate the most destructive preoccupation of street art, namely drug culture.

Though I’m not as conversant with slang for cannabis as others — since I’ve had enough health issues in my life and consequently avoid drug use of any kind — I did find in my research for this article that “jang” is occasionally used as a reference for a cannabis cigarette. Obviously this is a less socially redemptive use of street art, emphasizing the degree to which advertising (for drugs or anything else) has a pervasive influence in our culture.

The next piece of street art to come into view along the Riverwalk is this work, incorporating what appears to be a hot pink ribbon, forming some kind of word or script that may or may not be a highly stylized form of the artist’s signature.

Bright pink stencil of street art

This piece suggests another motif of street art, that of turning the signature of the artist from a mere a scribble in a corner of a painting to the very subject of the painting itself.

The idea of the signature as subject leads me to the next cultural reference, which in this case is much older than any of the others. And that is the motif of cave painting, which often incorporated similarly vibrant colors and was a global phenomenon, extending from Lascaux in France to Cuevo de los Manos in Argentina, much like street art does today. Many of these paleolithic cave paintings also incorporated elements of signature as well, in the form of hand-prints, illustrating the concept of art as the most powerful way for humans to bequeath an enduring legacy to the world. So in that sense, art is like a love letter to the future.

Also like a love letter is this next piece of street art, which sits on the north bank of the Eno River.

Street art message board

Though it’s more chaotic than any love letter I’ve ever seen, it conveys the jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings that are so often present in the hearts of people who write love letters: happiness and sadness, hope and fear, excitement and uncertainty.

This piece also makes reference, though obliquely, to that other ubiquitous font of private thought and emotion, namely social media. Much like the flood of memes that litters everyone’s social media sooner or later, there are simply so many thoughts and feelings percolating that none of them is able to rise to the top. As a result, they all sink to the bottom.

Compensating for the last piece is this next triptych of street art, the center of which is my personal favorite.

Disappearing staircase street art

On the far right is a stylized ghost that bears more than a slight resemblance to the emoji most frequently associated with a certain hugely popular messaging app. On the far left is the phrase, “Open your 3rd eye,” in yet another indirect reference to the drug culture seen in “Jang Escape” earlier.

But in the center is the real gem, a deceptively simple optical illusion in the vein of one of my favorite artists of the past century, M. C. Escher — who produced spatially impossible but visibly seamless works of art, frequently incorporating optical illusions or tricks of perspective. For the record, this effect is heightened later in the day, when the shadows are long and the shading of the piece matches the ambient lighting.

Directly opposite the illusory staircase is this next piece of street art, illustrating another recurrent theme in contemporary culture, namely use of the catchiest possible font.

Big orange letters in street art

Quite honestly, apart from the message — which I do agree with — this piece has much less originality than the others. Still I do love the color and shape of those warm, expansive orange letters, filling the space with a sense of comfortable familiarity that should be the most logical accompaniment of thought.

Beyond the Exchange Bridge, there’s one more piece of notable street art. It sits at the base of the Interstate Bridge, on the west side, not more than fifty feet from the Eno River. And what it is, I’m still not sure.

Surreal street art with pink heart and eye

Of course, that’s not to say I don’t know what some of its elements are. Obviously, there’s a heart in the middle and an eye staring straight at the viewer, both of which are fairly straightforward.

What’s not straightforward, however, is that thing that’s coming out of the top and bottom of the heart. It looks like it could be either a sword, planted in the ground with its hilt to the sky, or a plant, sending forth new growth in the warmth of spring. Perhaps it’s neither; perhaps it’s both.

Whatever it is, it’s compelling, and it clearly references the work of Surrealist painters in the last century, especially Salvador Dalí, who excelled so spectacularly at taking unlike objects and combining them into one dreamlike amalgam. This motif of Surrealism, that of combining reality and dreams into one super-reality, is in many ways the implicit aim of all street art, where the dreams of youth are intermingled with the disaffection of modernity to produce something that is both beautiful and messy, bold and vulnerable, public and private all at once.

And it’s for all those reasons that street art deserves your consideration and respect, whether you call it graffiti or not.

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