Check the Rhyme: Culture Wars vs. Style Wars

I hope that you have noticed but just in case you haven’t, RVA is currently being transformed into a hub for art and creative culture. The G40 Art Summit, Art 180’s What Do you Stand For display, and later this month the RVA Street Art Festival, are all a part of what I’m calling RVA’s Style Wars Summer.

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It became real for me last Tuesday. I was standing in knee-high grass on the corner on 12th and Hull taking photos of Pixel Pancho’s second mural, a massive piece of art that depicts a two-headed robotic dragon wrestling with nature, and standing beside me was Martha Cooper. That name may not mean very much to the casual reader, but Cooper’s presence in Richmond means that something groundbreaking was taking place. The legendary photographer has made her career by documenting special places during special times in history. This dates back to her time as a staff photographer for The New York Post in the 1970s and ‘80s. Cooper made her mark on history by documenting the major elements of hip hop culture–graffiti writing, break dancing, MCing, and DJing–in New York City at a time when it was completely underground.

Cooper was in town this week documenting Richmond’s first G40 Art Summit. I hope that you have noticed but just in case you haven’t, RVA is currently being transformed into a hub for art and creative culture. The G40 Art Summit, Art 180’s What Do you Stand For display, and later this month the RVA Street Art Festival, are all a part of what I’m calling RVA’s Style Wars Summer.

As I traveled around the city this week, I noticed crowds of Richmonders viewing, photographing, and discussing the new art on display. I heard those conversations pivot from artist and murals to conversations about music, hobbies, and neighborhoods. I believe that the vibe surrounding the sudden growth of public art in Richmond has some parallels to those early days of hip hop culture in New York City. Of course, these aforementioned art projects aren’t as rebellious, but the early days of hip hop weren’t about breaking the law, they were about expression and finding an identity. It was about creativity and pride in where one comes from.1

I have lived in Richmond all my life. I take great pride in the city and the progress that it has made, particularly in the last 15 years, with the reduction in violent crime and a growing city population. I am truly excited about the renaissance of art and culture that is starting to take place this summer. Richmond has a real opportunity to rebrand itself as a hotspot for art, music, and culture. But the fact remains that Richmond’s history still cast a huge shadow over progressive progress, and forging any type of new identity will be met with old-time opposition.

I believe the latest controversy on Monument Avenue is a strong example of the challenges that face RVA moving forward. In my opinion, City Hall has done well to embrace the expansion of arts and culture this summer, playing a significant role assisting the aforementioned art projects. They even originally provided a permit for Art 180’s What Do You Stand For display to be shown on Richmond’s most famous avenue until early May. I call this a good-faith effort by the city to support arts and creative culture. But what has disappointed me is what appears to be City Hall’s knee-jerk reactions to situations that could be resolved with comprise and a little more due diligence.

City Official should work with citizens, businesses, and non-profits on issues like the overflow of children at the First Friday’s Art Walk, the makeshift skate park in Fonticello Park, and the removal of art on Monument Avenue. Working together is the only way that RVA will be successful in creating a new identity that respects our history but doesn’t choke our growth towards becoming the great city that most Richmonders think we can be.

Last week, while walking down Broad Street photographing G40 murals, I met a very accomplished photographer from the United Kingdom named Vanessa Winship. Vanessa was in town as a part of her year-long project to photograph all 50 states. In our brief conversation, she instantly reflected on being in the south and particularly in Virginia. She remarked how there is a real tension in the history here. She said, “It’s a tension that you truly can feel–it wears thick–even to a visitor from out of town.” I believe the only way to dissipate the tension she refers to is by real collaboration and compromise. It sounds simple, but I believe City Hall could significantly benefit by taking a public lead in facilitating positive debate and resolutions to some of these issues.

I may be optimistic, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to deem this summer RVA’s Style Wars summer. It is my hope that the public art that is created and displayed will spark a growing appreciation and interest throughout the city. These art projects can help forge an identity for RVA as a Mid-Atlantic bright spot for arts, culture, and creativity.

I hope that 30 years from now America will be seeing a different set of photographs from the legendary Martha Cooper, one that marks this summer as the tipping point for something special in RVA.

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Footnotes

  1. If you are unfamiliar with the birth of hip hop culture, I highly recommend the documentary film, Style Wars
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Marc Cheatham

Marc Cheatham is the creator of The Cheats Movement Blog. The Cheats Movement is a forward looking blog designed to highlight the city of Richmond and all of its diversity through photos, art, film, and music.

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