Exploring Street Art Paste Ups as Shamanic Totems

Following on from my previous post exploring the origins of an idea I am going to sketch out some of the ways in which this initial idea developed as I started to try and adapt it for a contemporary setting. The first thing to say is that the link between urban magic and street art is key for understanding how the idea developed. Street art is ubiquitous, certainly in Portsmouth where I live and where my storyworld will be set, street art is extremely visible as a local cultural practice with My Dog Sighs, This is Midge and Southsea Mook being some of the most prolific of the artists pasting up artworks around the city. Interestingly there is a common motif amongst many of these artists which is the use of old manuscripts, often musical as a canvas for the poster. This suggests some collusion or at the very least a strong sense of communal purpose among these artists as they attempt to brighten up the street furniture in the city.


My Dog Sighs

Noted scholar on the topic of street art Martin Irvine (2012) talks about how street art inserts itself into the materiality of the city, of how it can be seen as a materialisation of an argument about the visuality of and an engagement with the city as a neighbourhood. In which place becomes an assemblage of surfaces in which the inhabitants of that neighbourhood can inscribe their presence semiotically. So, the city becomes not just a canvas but also the raw material of the collage as the artists themselves, as social actors embedded within the cultural milieu of the neighbourhood project the communities’ interests onto its walls and street furniture.

You might think of this in similar terms as you might consider prehistoric art as a form of ancient graffiti that effaced dwellings and sites of collective encounter with marks and diagrams that enact a sense of the social. In this sense, it might be possible to think of prehistoric art as a ritual magic in which the act of drawing is the essence of the ritual as much as the picture itself (Hidden Medway 2007) as early humans make marks that project their own social world on to the environment in which they inhabit. This kind of magic is often referred to as contagious magic which James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough describes as:

…proceed[ing] upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other…” (Frazer 1935).


This is Midge

This tagging of the of urban settings conjoins the mark maker and the environment through the act of marking. This is a form of territorialisation, a co-opting of the urban that puts it to work for the mark maker. A becoming if you like of the artists and the fabric of the urban environment, this contested space in which we all dwell. This is the nature of urban magic, it doesn’t set out to necessarily cast spells but to draw into itself the presence of the city so as to interact with it through the inscription of shamanic totems. Thereby reclaiming the urban from the ever-colonising corporate facade of privacy, restricted access, push button, chain fence ownership.


Southsea Mook

The city sigils that paste up artists leave around the urban environment have some similarity to this kind of contagious magic, or at least, from a creative point of view there is enough here to produce a feasible connection as the basis of a storyworld. After all, we are dealing with magic realism here so as long as the principle that magic exists is clearly established then anything is possible. So, there is no great leap to imagine that today’s urban witches might wish to communicate with the city through the inscription of spells and incantations onto the walls and street furniture of a neighbourhood (Penczak 2001). From a creative point of view, it would be easy to see how an artist might incorporate totemic symbols within an art work and indeed many already do.

Plus of course it is a common practice for street artist to hashtag their work and a hashtag takes us to Instagram and thereby directly into our storyworld. This then seems like a good point of entry for those who might encounter the transmedia world we are going to create. It also offers a way of engaging with the local creative community as well as a way of discreetly drawing attention to the story among potential participants. I also like the idea of creating a character, an artist come urban witch, a trickster figure who is playful and provocative. Someone to drive the narrative forward.

This of course then provokes another question… who is this artist?

That will be the focus of the next blog post.

Reference List

Frazer, J. G., 1935. The Golden Bough; a Study in Magic and Religion. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Hidden Medway, 2007, Contagious Magic. Available at: https://hiddenmedway.wordpress.com/2007/12/23/contagious-magic/ [Accessed 26 Oct. 2018].

Irvine, M. (2012). The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London & New York: Berg, 235-278.

Penczak, C., 2001. City Magick. New York: Weiser Books

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