Kultura con ‘k’: Discovering a City’s Soul — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

A special series. Kultura con ‘k’: Discovering a City’s Soul — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

kultura 1 IMG_5835
[This news stand is an example I pass nearly every day, it’s not unique in the sense that it has been tagged but it caught my eye.]

You can buy the book or take the tour: viewing all of the landmarks everyone wants to visit and taking every photo to capture it for yourself, but when it comes right down to it if you want to get to know a city and its people you’re going to have to leave the beaten path. My dad always taught me to break from the crowd (of tourists) when traveling and follow the music: find the people and be polite, ask them about themselves and actually learn something worth taking home with you. While abroad I’ve certainly hit all of the big tourist-y spots that I could, but in general I try to avoid them to get a better feel for a city’s true personality by searching out the more unaffected parts of the city.

kultura 2 IMG_5291[My roommate, Zoe, marveling at the creations on this door we found one of the first nights in Barcelona.]

In a previous post (Common Catalonian Cuisine) I mentioned the idea of different kinds of culture: Culture with a capital “C”, culture with a little “c” and culture with a “k”. What my dad always wanted me to look for was culture with a “c”: the everyday living that people do in their home- in which you are a stranger and unaccustomed. What caught my interest from the start of this program, though, is the culture with “k”, the alternative. Kultura in Spain, throughout Europe and the rest of the world, is that which you won’t find in a museum. Often, the meaning is lost on us because we lack the understanding to fully comprehend, or we simply overlook it because it isn’t listed in the pages of our Lonely Planet reader.

kultura 3 IMG_5853[Sometimes I’m really really impressed with what someone has done, like the skulls pictured here, with the words “vida” and “mort” incorporated it shows life and death as two sides of the same coin, er, skull.]

Graffiti has always captured my interest. I really don’t see myself as any sort of artist so I enviously enjoy works of art that others produce. Growing up in Duluth and watching the trains come in and out of the city I would look at the various tags on each car and marvel at the different colors and styles that each boasted. When my friends and I were old enough to drive ourselves around town we explored the Graffiti Graveyard and I was astounded by what people were able to do with little more than spray paint. In Barcelona, from the very first day, I was astounded by how much graffiti there is. The sentiment of many people in Spain is that the city is their property as citizens, one professor explained, so it isn’t at all unusual to see spray painted scribbles or murals that express someone’s views on a bench, a newspaper kiosk, or the side of a building; but for an American coming in with a very different lens, I was a bit surprised at the abundance and normality of it all.

kultura 4 IMG_5976[Not only in Barcelona, but all over Spain and the rest of the globe you can see examples of graffiti reacting to the political climate of the time, such as this piece seen in Figueres, Spain.]

In Barcelona, and all over the world, graffiti is used to tell a story. More than just the individual tags, graffiti is used to relate history, to express political unrest among the people, or to exhibit a chosen aesthetic by creating pieces that play with the façade of their canvas. The sentiment of many people in Spain is that the city is their property as citizens, one professor explained, so it isn’t at all unusual to see spray painted scribbles that express one person’s views on a bench, a newspaper kiosk, or the side of a building- but for an American coming in with a very different lens, I was a bit surprised at the abundance and normality of it all.

kultura 5 IMG_5993[And of course, within Barcelona the inefficiency of the governing bodies has many a citizen frustrated and one obvious outlet to express that frustration is art.]

It takes a bit of work to get oneself accustomed to any given kultura, but once you have a bit of insight to a place’s history and the story of its people it’s as if you’ve been handed a key and the lights have all been turned on. The scribbles on the park benches and the murals you pass each day are now deciphered through a better understanding, and by gaining this consciousness you add another lens to your collection.

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:


The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing reviews of books, documentaries, and films, projects on historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.

We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org The NSR is sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact chief editor Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu


Filed under Katherine LaFleur, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

40 responses to “Kultura con ‘k’: Discovering a City’s Soul — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It reminded me of the many times I have traveled to Mexican Tourist destinations only to find myself on public transportation meeting people on their way to and from work or transporting a birthday cake by water taxi to a remote village. Like your father, I have an interest in “c” culture. I want to know how people live their daily lives in different places and at different times. Your observations of graffiti as kultura expression is very interesting. Your comment about the key to understanding graffiti being in the gaining of insight to a place’s history and the story of its people made me want to take a closer look. I have never been to Spain but after reading your article I am intrigued. Thanks!

  2. Mike Lehmann

    That’s a really cool concept to think about. That the city belongs to the people. Kind of puts things in perspective here if you ask me, you would get in huge trouble if you spray painted the sides of buildings here in America, but there it seems to be the norm. Its awesome that you are traveling off of the beaten path though. Keep on keepin on.

  3. David Miller

    I really love how you have written this article, and it really gets me thinking about the next time I take a trip. I do agree with your father about getting out and finding the true culture of a place aside from the tourist attractions. Graffiti has and will always amaze me due to the fact that people can create something so beautiful in the simplest way.

  4. Katy Goerke

    You must be either really lucky, or have looked a long time to find such creative graffiti. Usually the only tags I see are ones where people choose to express themselves as crass thugs, who’s work is only impressive if they are five. So thank you for showing that common art can also be thoughtful and well-made.

  5. Evangelista Chicheko

    I enjoyed reading your article. I have figured out that pictures are some of the artifacts that remind us of the different places we visit. Pictures also resemble some cultural aspects of that particular place. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  6. Becca

    This observation has been an interesting read! It seems like graffiti is much more accepted in Spain, yet from what I’ve been able to see from the pictures, it looks like people are only doing it on the newer buildings, leaving the historic ones in peace, or maybe just using its door as a canvas (as seen in the last picture). I think this shows the culture of Spain, and how, while the city is the people’s property, they still treat the historic places with respect and reverence.

  7. Zach Friederichs

    This article reminds me of the vast amounts of graffiti I saw while studying in Quito, Ecuador. Although at many times this form of art was abused, it had such a strong impact when utilized in a manner that conveyed public opinion. Here’s a link to a cool article by The Guardian that my Spanish professor emailed me – it’s about some anonymous artists who go around Quito making grammatical corrections.


  8. Interesting analysis on how people travel and live out their daily lives compared to us. It seems public transportation seems to be more of the norm there. Which may give evidence to the fact that in America people take their individual forms of transportation for granted. Have you ever wanted to go watch people paint on the walls?

  9. nickalino

    It is interesting to see the wide variety of painting on the city’s walls. It give an outsider to see a chance to see what the different varying political stances are in the city. Also it is interesting to see how the commoners go about their daily lives. It seems public transportation is much more popular there than it is here. Something which may be a detriment in many ways, specifically environmentally.

  10. I’m curious if “Free Palestine” is a common tag in Spain’s graffiti. If so, I’m guessing it’s solidarity between the Basque people and the Palestinians. The Basque region has people with their own identity, language, etc. separate from Spain as a whole. They’ve tried many times to gain independence and become their own nation, but still they remain part of Spain. Their situation is similar to that of the Palestinians and they’ve reached out in various ways to show solidarity. The Basque region is northwest of Barcelona, but I imagine the sentiment resinates beyond their region.

  11. Karn Pederstuen

    I have really enjoyed the articles you have been posting and you seem to be having a great time on your trip! I enjoy reading about your experiences in culture with a little “c.”

  12. Samantha Roettger

    I had a very similar experience in Paris. I found graffiti on various street walls and bridges. As an American, I was shocked at the amount of graffiti I found. Paris is a very historic city with architecture that is older than America itself so I thought that the city would want to preserve it’s history by keeping graffiti off their walls. I think in America, graffiti has a negative connotation and is seen as rebellious. However, in cities such as Paris and Barcelona, graffiti may be seen as a growing of their city historically. It is art and it does tell a story so years from now tourists will come into the city and hear the stories of the walls through it’s graffiti.

  13. Kyle Stepka

    All the stories you have been writing about since you have been on your trip I have really enjoyed and also have been a little jealous. These are the stories that you are going to remember for the rest of your life.

  14. Chelsey L

    This article was very good! I like how you say the graffti is a meaning of different things. I think sometimes it is art that is in a different form. I do like also how you add about the culture being a big C or a little c and also a k. I found that interesting and how you responded was a good way to put it.

  15. Camila Garcia

    Is very interesting in your article how you describe the difference in the view of graffitis in different countries. As you said in America and in my home country graffitis are not seen with good eyes. Is very interesting to see that in some countries these drawings are more appreciated and are part of the identity of the people in the city.

  16. Carley Henning

    I also have the same interest in graffiti. I envy the artists work when I see it because I was not blessed with any artistic ability. Really great blog and I enjoyed reading it!

  17. Tommy Traaholt

    I agree with you on how amazing graffiti is! I was born right next to train tracks and every time the train came by i was astonished at the artwork that was considered illegal. I wish i had an artistic ability, because emotion is expressed through these pieces of graffiti, and it would be cool to do this.

  18. Donovan Chock

    Awesome story! When I was in Austria, I noticed a lot of graffiti and later learned that that boomed due to the Berlin Wall. I also like how you broke from the tourists. I had the best times when I would just wonder by myself and speak with the locals. I actually had them write in my journal what I ought to remember or try on my own.

  19. daniela rojas

    When I went to Barcelona the first thing I notice was that there was graffiti everywhere, so it was nice reading your story because it reminded of my time there. And I also agree with your father because sometimes the best places and the best times are the ones that you will only get with the locals.

  20. Kaitlyn Young

    This was a very cool article! I like that you searched out the places in the city that really show what they place is all about. I try to do things like that whenever I travel somewhere new. There is so much more to a city or town than what can be seen by just looking at the main attractions. Very interesting!

  21. Kyle Hellmann

    I like your point on how graffiti can tell a lot about of a Kultura. It inspires me to look more carefully whenever I see some. I have also been to the graffiti graveyard here, and it really is amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  22. Kendra Johnson

    I recently got back from a mission trip to Los Angeles, California and I had seen a lot of graffiti like this as well. Even though it’s in a different country, it’s cool to see people from all over the world expressing themselves through art and have other people, like you, appreciate it and it’s meaning. Great article!

  23. Bao Vang

    I love how you talked about why the painting caught your eyes. This article reminded me of artworks or graffiti through the twins cities in Minnesota. I am a very artistic person so every time I see an artwork, I would just stare at it for minutes trying to figure out the artist’s intentions. Sometimes I would even see artworks done on the side of a bridge over a lake and wonder, how the heck did the artist do that? Did he tie himself to a rope or why the artist chose that certain section to paint their works? I was very fascinated by all the photos you provided and I believe they all have great meanings behind them. Thank you for your article!

  24. Kat, I think it would be great for you to watch this TED Talk, “JR: My wish: Use art to turn the world inside out” after your posted image of building in Figueres, Spain. The keynote speaker used to use graffiti as his mark on society indicating that ‘he was here’ in the streets of Paris. Over time, he began taking photos of individuals with a 28 mm lens and creating billboard-size posters of images of the locals to make a statement in response to the political climate resulting in him traveling all over the world. It’s an inspiring talk and I appreciated your take on the art form.

  25. Kat, your reflection on the art form of graffiti reminded me of a TED Talk I saw a few years ago called, “JR: My wish: Use art to turn the world inside out.” The keynote speaker used to use graffiti as his way to make his mark in society in the streets of Paris. Of course it was illegal but he was able to capture the essence of the political climate that covered the area he was currently resided. Over time, he moved from graffiti to photography and started cover cities of the locals to indicate that above all else, we’re simply all human beings. A commonality that most overlook. I think you’ll appreciate it!

  26. Austin Kindt

    Just because it is the sentiment of many people that graffiti should be allowed does not make it right. However, I do think a lot of it can be viewed as art and much of it does take a lot of talent. But what if someone defaced or brightened up your house through the use of spray paint? I guess its all about perspective even though it is illegal. On a side note if anyone wants to watch a really interesting and strange documentary on this topic of street art I recommend, Exit Through the Gift Shop. What I loved about it is that something that once was seen as defaced public property now has transformed into high art. The film follows a goofy French “film maker” and was done by Banksy, a famous street artist. Thanks for sharing these experiences and keep on writing!

  27. Benjamin Carlson

    Upon my travels abroad, I too found delight in stumbling upon powerful works of art in the form of graphite. It brought me incite into what cultural believes at the time and what the people really wanted the world to know. Thank you for sharing!

  28. I would love to be in your shoes, and get a chance to experience the art that you have been seeing, along with all the other beautiful pieces of culture that you have experienced on your trip. There are so many different cultures around the world, getting to experience new ones really helps you to look at the how many opportunities and things in life there are to experience! Thank you for sharing!

  29. Tyler Winkelman

    I really enjoyed reading your article! Those are amazing pictures of street art in Spain. Its really amazing to look at art when you travel. Thanks for sharing!

  30. Hannah Johnson

    Thank you for sharing! It was very interesting to read. I have enjoyed reading your experience studying abroad and how different things are!

  31. Hannah Kunde

    The images in your article really show the meaning to your words. These works of art are not only a creative way of expression, but also very edgy and sometimes even political. I think a lot of people underestimate graffiti and write it off as vandalism. However, this is clearly not the case as you have shown in your article. Thanks!

  32. I love seeing street art like this! It’s reminiscent of home in Chicago, where the bridges and buildings along the railways were littered with colour – symbols, up for interpretation. Illegible words that only appear to be lines and dots seem to litter everywhere, with murals in between. Yet after examining them for years at a certain point you start to decipher the dialects of the art. It’s beautiful, thank you for this piece. What a wonderful read!

  33. Ada

    I love reading all of your insights on traveling :). I’m really looking forward to experience something similar of my own when I get the chance to travel. How different are the graffiti styles you have witnessed in the States as opposed to the ones in Barcelona? It’s very interesting to notice how the perception of art changes across cultures/nations and how this can affect that same culture.

  34. Evangelista Chicheko

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I like how you are experiencing different cultures and how you are able to make connections with your culture. Thanks for sharing

  35. When I went to Baltimore I remember seeing similar paintings on walls and I never knew that there could be some messages on those paintings. I just thought they were some random meaningless art. I never knew that the people who do graffiti put so much thought in what they did. Thanks for sharing.

  36. Luke Scharrer

    Katherine- your photos are amazing, and really add dimension to this article. I think there is something about graffiti that interests a lot people, maybe the taboo behind it in the US? It is interesting that, in Spain, it is seen as simply a way for citizens to express their opinions or artistic talents. I also like your connection to graffiti graveyard, as that is a very cool local destination here in Duluth.

  37. Andy Lawrence

    I like this article and how it relates graffiti which can be looked at as a bad thing in one place to a work of art that people enjoy in another. It shows how even though globalization makes us the same, we still have our differences.

  38. Ashley Svihel

    I really liked what your father told you about discovering what a city and country is really about by staying away from the tourist spots, very cool. I also enjoyed the pictures because I also think graffiti is interesting and it shows a great amount of symbolism in the artwork which can be displayed/spray painted just about anywhere.

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