I've always been interested in the details of a place, not in the broad strokes; not in the great wonders of a city, but in its little quirks and dirty corners. Those are things I can take wonder in. I can begin to feel like those details and oddities are part of my story. It's the unseen, untold goings-on of the place that I can get behind with the full force of my imagination. That's how you get attached to a place. It's the way I feel about a city in which a book that I really loved was set for instance, even if I've never been there. I suddenly feel that I know something of the underlying character of the place and its inhabitants. And that has very little to do with its cathedrals and museums. It may be no coincidence that so many people love both the book 'The Shadow of the Wind' and the city of Barcelona.
The Art of Travel
When I was a teenager, I read the book 'The Art of Travel' by Alain De Botton. I wouldn't generally rate it as one of my favourite books but perhaps I should because I know that it has had a profound effect on my life. I remember frighteningly few details of the book but I do remember one passage very clearly and I think it encapsulates the meaning of the book, at least the meaning that I understood. The author describes - and I'm paraphrasing dramatically - attempting to draw the window of a crappy hotel room that he has just arrived at. He can't draw. He doesn't even really want to draw the thing but he read that drawing stuff while travelling was something he should do so he's trying. The window is essentially the only thing of interest in this hotel room and even that is not terribly interesting but in spite of this, he draws it. His sketch turns out to be worthless, as expected but he realises the point of the exercise. He has acquired a detailed understanding of the room and the window. He has been forced to observe something, in minute detail, that he would never have otherwise paid attention to. He notes the peeling paint where the window rubs against the frame as it's opened, the colour of previous paint jobs peeking through, the spider webs in the corner, the direction and hue of the sun at that moment, the distant spire he can just about see through the window between the buildings opposite, he wonders about the architects choice in putting the window in that spot etc etc. The point is he feels connected to the place, and interested in it just by virtue of observing the details.
Since reading 'The Art of Travel' and since doing my own travelling, I have very much embraced this point of view. I feel like it is easy to burn yourself out looking up places to visit, travelling to them, walking around them for hours. While I still do that occasionally, I am usually much happier to spend some time in the neighbourhood where I'm staying, even if it is a bit of a sh*thole. There's lots to see. Lot's of amazing and interesting things everywhere, not only in the places that have 50 Yelp reviews or the government has decided is worthy of building a visitor centre around. Sure there's things in my own garden that I've never seen before, if I look a little closer.
In my most recent travels, I was fascinated by Barcelona's doors. In the the three months I spent there last year, I was constantly charmed by them. I was interested in the huge, beautifully crafted, wooden doors at first, but then I became fascinated with all the doors and the artwork that covers most of them. In fact, I began to love the old, patched up, dirty ones the best. These are the ones that had a story. There's something so compelling about seeing someone go through one of these doors. What's behind there? What does this person do? How did they end up living behind that door? If I had to show someone around Barcelona, I'd probably take them to the area with the most crappy old doors.
It's interesting to me that almost every door in Barcelona has some graffiti but the buildings themselves are generally graffiti-free. There is a now established tradition amongst shop owners of commissioning street art for the security shutters that are so common there but I would guess that at least half, probably more of the door art is unasked for and unwanted. It begs the question, if it's illegal anyway, then why restrict yourself to doors. I've asked around about this but it's unanswered. Neither do I know if the practice of painting doors follows on from the commissioning of artworks or if doors were being used as canvases anyway so shop-owners joined them instead of fighting them.
Most Prolific Barcelona Street Artists
When you spend a couple of months staring at graffiti, you begin to get to know some of the most common artists. And the prize for most prolific Barcelona graffiti artist goes to......ICEPOP GUY! Those things are everywhere! Turns out his name is Onegizer Konair and his art is varied and interesting and always recognisable. Props to you. Check out this interview with him or hit him up on twitter @konair.
These two artists are unidentified but I noticed them a lot. I wasn't particularly impressed with their skill but they're prolific and I guess everyone starts out with quick and dirty pieces all over the city. Maybe someday they'll be as impressive as these well-known barcelona-based street artists: El Xupet Negre, El Pez, El Mano/Nami, Kenor, H101, Btoy, Chanoir and Zosen & Mina. Check them all out and while you're at it, watch this great little documentary about Barcelona street art.