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What is Urban?

08 Nov 2006

What is urban art? In today’s society you either hear the term urban or say the word at least once a day. To understand what the urban art form is we need to understand the definition of the word urban. How does one define a word that is as common and as internationally known as coffee or war? The dictionary would define it as "of, relating to or located in the city". Nowadays however, Urban has transcended this simple definition and is now associated with numerous subjects ranging from music to structural developments. Another definition would be the characteristic of the city or city life. However, the teenager on the corner would probably define urban as a way of living and your average marketer would defines it as a demographic; an intended target audience. Those between the ages of 15-25, who live at home, listen to hip hop or "urban music" and who feel comfortable with brand names such as Sean John, Nike, IPOD, Rockawear.

Now, to someone who grew up in the urban lifestyle, a “city dweller” such as myself, there is a different perspective about the true definition of the word urban. The word used to have a negative connotation as it was mostly used to label the disenfranchised. It became a way to identify those who grew up in less fortunate areas of the city. It characterized a group of young people who rejected and opposed the dominant values and behaviors of social order.

It was a word used to identify a counter culture. For those who grew up in the city and were labeled urban, the definition that society had associated to the word had a completely different meaning. For us it wasn’t a label or a marketing gimmick, it was a way of life. It was about freedom of speech, freedom of expression. It was about life and society and the artistic mediums by which we chose to express ourselves. In today’s society, big businesses and the media have used this word to establish multi-million dollar industries. It is now a golden ticket that generates billions of dollars through advertising, music, clothing, movies, commercial developments and the list goes on.

Even though this word has become part of many companies’ strategic marketing plans, the true definition and its ramifications are yet unclear. To truly understand what can be considered urban, all the existing associations need to be removed from our mental schema. We need to strip all the negative connotations, the advertising slogans, the bright neon bill boards and look underneath the glitz and glamour to understand and truly appreciate this word and its art form. A colleague once said to me that the term urban means the city and urban art would be all that the city encompasses. In a way the city is her nature, the buildings are her trees, the bright city lights are her sunrises and sunsets. If we were to approach urban art from this perspective, studying and understanding the art form would be to discover the community, embrace the various cultures, appreciate the diversity, absorb the ethnicity within the city.

Having said all that, urban is the city and urban art is all that the city encompasses. It is the high rise condo developments; it is the uniquely designed buses, the skate parks, and the street performers. It is what you make it and it is up to each individual to discover it.

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