Street art and art therapy

If you walk along the streets of most major cities, you will almost certainly come across graffiti on the walls, pavements and bus shelters.

Not so many years ago, graffiti artists prowled late at night, covertly creating their masterpieces for city folk to see the next day. However, things are changing. Rather than rushing to remove artwork and white-wash walls, local councils are starting to embrace the wonders of street art.

One city that has taken street art to its heart is Stavanger in Norway. Now in its 19th year, the longest running street art festival in the world, the Nuart Festival brings a host of international artists to the city.

Nuart aims to challenge existing thinking, generate new ideas and push the boundaries of what constitutes public and private space.

Stavanger is twinned with Aberdeen, a city in the north east of Scotland, and they too have embraced the concept of a street festival to celebrate art, artists and public space.

A two-hour walk around the centre of Aberdeen reveals an eclectic mix of colour, themes, styles and expressions. There is even a wall devoted to a group of over-60s, who were trained in the use of spray paints before being given the chance to paint on walls.

Not only is the art in these festivals impressive pieces in their own right, many of the artists have ceased upon the opportunity to ‘say something’ about themselves, their causes, their passions and their emotions.

Street artists who use art to express their emotions

I came across a street artist from the US, Ryan Brunty. While suffering from depression and anxiety, Ryan, who goes by the street name of ‘depressed monster’, created the character, Yerman, a sad cartoon yeti. Ryan felt that his cartoon character represented how he felt about his mood and illness. His artwork is unique because it approaches the topic of mental health in a way that makes the issue somewhat light-hearted and therefore easier to talk about.

Ryan comments: “When my grandfather passed in 2012, I went through an extremely deep bout of depression that resulted in me not leaving my house for two weeks and losing my job.

“I began to draw self-portraits as a way to cope and one day a fuzzy yeti watercolour stared back at me. I called him Yerman.

“People started to relate to Yerman and they started to draw their own ‘depressed monsters’ to help with their own anxiety.”

Ryan continued: “I decided to write a blog in 2014, for Suicide Prevention Day since not a lot of people knew where the yeti had come from. The post was shared and people started sharing their own stories and I realised one of the most powerful things you can do is open up and share your journey for others.”

Yerman the yeti


Another artist, Gioele Corona, designed and painted a mural in Shoreditch, East London. She says: “My idea behind the piece was to show how we all see life in our own way. Every person will appear in a certain way to us, due to our personal lens.

“I chose a close friend of mine as the subject for the mural. Sabrina is a transgender and we have spoken about how sometimes she can feel life is ‘not real’ or ‘present’ due to the way she’s treated by the rest of the world.” Gioele painted the piece to be a positive reminder that our mind is a lens that can colour how we see things.

Art is an incredibly enjoyable experience. It is little wonder that street artists use the experience to express their thoughts and to help them communicate with the world. Art is also an amazing therapy as well.

People who suffer from a wide spectrum of mental health issues can often feel overwhelmed by the problems they face. There are pressures on everyone but those who suffer from mental ill-health can find those pressures are magnified considerably. Art therapy can give people the opportunity to pause and to work at achieving self-expression.

Some of the street artists I came across in Stavanger, Aberdeen and London felt as though they couldn’t turn to anyone to express their thoughts and feelings. However, given the chance to create something in a public place, where it can be seen by the public, helped them to communicate their emotions in a way that was not possible otherwise.

Anger, sadness, confusion and grief can be difficult for many people to talk about. Sometimes, an alternative release is just what is needed.

But it is not just modern-day artists who have expressed their emotions through art.

The Scream

Edvard Munch, who painted one of the most iconic and widely recognised masterpieces of the 19th century, had his own demons. After painting The Scream, he said the idea had come to him in a vision, where the ‘sky turned blood red’.

He said that he stopped walking one day and leaned against a fence, feeling unspeakably tired. “Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish fjord. Then I heard an enormous and infinite scream of nature.”

Experts believe The Scream represents the anxiety of man, coupled with Munch’s internal torment, which fuelled his art. Munch wrote in 1908, that his condition was verging on madness and he entered electrification therapy for hallucinations and feelings of persecution.

The Scream


Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy

Of course, you don’t have to paint on walls to get the therapeutic benefits from art. You don’t even need to be an artist.

Various studies have been carried out, and there are many scientists who believe that art therapy is a valuable psychotherapeutic treatment. One study that was carried out in 2014, using brain scanning technology, concluded that art is particularly valuable for rebalancing brain functions that have been compromised by trauma.

Art therapists, who are specifically trained in this type of therapy, skilfully encourage a combination of spontaneous, relational and creative engagement; functions associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.

In order to promote the integration of both brain hemispheres, art therapists facilitate attention, focus, communication and logical understanding through the art-making process.

Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.

Art, as a means of expression and as a way to regain emotional wellbeing, is a fantastic therapeutic tool.

And, as the popularity of street art festivals grow, hopefully we will see many more people expressing their views on the walls of our cities.

Please let me know if you have tried art therapy, or perhaps you are an art therapist yourself?







Published by

a helping hand

Psychologist, clinical hypnotherapist, life coach, counsellor and cognitive behavioural therapist.

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