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When street artists use metaphors to make sense of their experiences

In Greece, the practice of (producing) unsanctioned street art has increased dramatically during the period of the austerity crisis. When walking through contemporary Athens, it is hard not to note the overwhelming presence of street art, such as those in Figures 1 and 2, particularly in central districts.

Figure 1. Artwork by LOTEK (Political Stencil).

© Photograph: Georgios Stampoulidis, Athens, August 2018.

Figure 2. An anonymous artwork.

© Photograph: Georgios Stampoulidis, Athens, August 2018.

The questions that stood out in the course of my most recent research have to do with the experiences that lead street artists in their practice and what metaphors they might use to talk about those experiences. In order to understand how street artists have experienced and perceived their art-making, I explored their perspectives as expressed in relatively spontaneous and socially situated dialogue with the help of go-along interviews (e.g. Kusenbach, 2003; Evans & Jones, 2011).[1] It has transpired that Greek street artists adopt highly conscious and creative metaphors in the flow of conversation to make sense of their experiences, as shown in the following quotations:

Doing street art is a form of expansion and relief. Everybody comes out and writes their own story. It is a form of relief. You may think of people going to the gyms, working out really hard to show off their abs in the summer. Similarly, here, the people of art do the same. We show our artistic abs. So, in essence, street art making is the same as going to the gym. And your artworks are your abs. (Go-along interview with Anna Dimitriou,

Street art resembles the evolution of a wolf into a dog. Some wolves have, at one time or another, decided for reasons of curiosity to open up with our species, becoming domesticated dogs, and thus being directly dependent on humans. So, many street artists, while starting ‘from the bottom’ by painting in the urban forest, were domesticated when they entered galleries, collectors’ houses and other cultural institutions. We happily remain wolves. (Go-along interview with Political Stencil,
I use some visual details. It is exactly that, that enhances the communication. All this gives the extension. I generally try to get my viewers out of reality and bring them to my world. I kind of try to kidnap them from their world - at least for a while. For example, the passers-by on the streets, when they stop for a few seconds to see my work, I kind of kidnap them from reality. This reminds me of the Disneyland train. Within a minute’s journey you have experienced things that you would have never even imagined before what they would be. So, with the help of street art you may travel with your mind for a long time afterwards. (Go-along interview with Yiakou,

The use of metaphors such as those highlighted in these citations provides the opportunity to address complex phenomena, probing the meanings of street artists’ experiences. Since 1980s, metaphors have gained much academic attention, shifting from being treated as a purely rhetorical figure of speech to being regarded as a common tool for human communication underlying cognitive processes.

A number of metaphor researchers, who represent distinct approaches in cognitive linguistics and other neighboring disciplines concerning the nature of metaphor have provided different accounts of why people use metaphors. Among these, three factors have recurred throughout the discussions: (a) pan-human bodily experience (e.g. Lakoff and Johnson; 1999), (b) sociocultural conventions (e.g. Zinken, 2007), and (c) immediate context of the actual social interaction (e.g. Cameron & Deignan, 2006). In my work I have paid attention to street artists’ metaphors used in the actual dialogic encounter in the context of go-along interviews, and come to the conclusion that all three of these factors are relevant.

Theoretically, this can be accounted by the syntetic approach that literally emerged in our cognitive semiotic group in Lund during the last five or so years: the Motivation & Sedimentation Model (MSM) (e.g. Devylder & Zlatev, in press; Stampoulidis et al., 2019). The model implies both embodiment and cultural variation in metaphor use, upholding the dynamics of actual metaphor production. By distinguishing three distinct but yet interacting levels of meaning: the Embodied, Sedimented and Situated levels MSM integrates elements of different metaphor theories that have appeared as opposing.

Along with enthusiasts of metaphorical dynamism in actual interaction for example, in the Situated level the focus is “on the process of creating and enacting some kind of metaphorical meaning” (Jensen, 2017). However, this could neither be created nor be enacted in the course of the go-along interview without the other two levels. The Sedimented level is where sociocultural conventions and historical awareness assemble. And the importance of pan-human bodily experience is acknowledged in the Embodied level, but with the important distinction that such analogies (the ‘conceptual mappings’ of Lakoff and Johnson) are not metaphors per se, but rather motivations for the use of creative and enacting metaphors, which are contextually embedded.

[1] This data is derived from my work in progress.

I wish to thank the street artists for sharing their valuable experiences and granting permission to use the citations.

I will now point to another member of MetNet Scandinavia, Jenny Hartman from Umeå University, who will write the next blog post on metaphors and autism.


Cameron, L., & Deignan, A. (2006). The emergence of metaphor in discourse. Applied linguistics, 27(4), 671–690.

Devylder, S. & Zlatev, J. (In press). Cutting and Breaking Metaphors of the Self and the Motivation and Sedimentation Model. In A. Baicchi & G. Radden (Eds.), Figurative Meaning Construction in Thought and Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Evans, J. & Jones, P. (2011). The walking interview: methodology, mobility and place. Applied Geography, 31, 849–858.

Jensen, T. W. (2017). Doing metaphor: An ecological perspective on metaphoricity in discourse. In B. Hampe (Ed.), Metaphor: Embodied cognition to discourse (pp. 257-276). Cambridge University Press.

Kusenbach, M. (2003). Street Phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool. Ethnography,4(455), 455–485.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic books.

Stampoulidis, G., Bolognesi, M. & Zlatev, J. (2019). A cognitive semiotic exploration of metaphors in Greek street art. Cognitive Semiotics, 12(1).

Zinken, J. (2007). Discourse metaphors: The link between figurative language and habitual analogies. Cognitive Linguistics, 18, 445–466.

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