Activist Street Art

By Rachael Young

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the majority of 2020, you’ll be familiar with the boom of artistic images emerging with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. With murals of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality being painted all over the world, these images have become the backdrop for global media coverage. But these artworks are more than just backgrounds for these complicated issues. Street art has become an active battleground for communities demanding their neighborhoods and institutions of power reflect them and their wishes. These pretty pictures have become activist resources. 

Street art (murals, stickers, graffiti, etc.) emerged from the category of public art in the 1980s and 1990s. Suzanne Lacy, artist and professor of art and design at the University of Southern California, defines public art as “a new genre of art which is socially engaged, interactive art, for diverse audiences which uses both traditional and non-traditional media to communicate and interact with the audience on issues directly relevant to them.” Rising from a mix of increased racial discrimination and violence, attempts to curb the rights of women and the LBGTQ+ community, and a rise in censorship, this is a type of art not made for a museum wall, but for average people to interact with on a daily basis. 

Street art is art in service of the people. Street art isn’t judged by critics or gallery owners, but by those in the community. Street art creates a space for debate and political engagement. Street art brings a visibility to the ‘other,’ or those who do not hold traditional forms of power and are therefore represented very little in public spaces. Street art is ever evolving with contemporary debates and discussions. Street art, like folklore, is meant to bring visibility to topics which traditional power institutions do not have a place for. Street art is a tool for activism which communities use to draw attention to their needs. 

The explosion of BLM street art around the nation is a demonstration of communities displaying issues that are important to them. Street art creates a physical space for discussion and displays of support. These images become places where the community gathers – to mourn, to celebrate, to demand change. These large images engulf passersby, inserting them into the image and the issue. Street art also creates a digital space for discussion and support. Pictures of street art are posted, liked, and reposted across multiple social media platforms drawing more attention to the movement and involving people on a personal level. These images have become a resource for the movement. 

Many cities across the nation have painted the words BLACK LIVES MATTER on streets around government buildings. From Washington, D.C. to New York, Raleigh,  Austin, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, these pieces of street art have rallied communities together. These murals allow communities to discuss the BLM movement and to demand further action. These images are so important to these communities that defiling them has resulted not only in rallying even more support to the BLM cause, but in misdemeanor charges. Street art has become a crucial way for communities and movements to display their demands, their self-image, their wishes, and their power. To attack the image is to attack the movement and the community. As oppressed groups around the nation continue to demand change, it appears this street art is not going anywhere anytime soon.

How to help:

Compensate artists!: While many street artists have made a name for themselves with the rise of social media, Banksy they are not. These artists do not make a fortune creating community-based street art, but you can help them. If you can afford to financially support a project or buy some merchandise, do so. If not, help by paying these artists in exposure: follow them on social media, repost their work and tag them, take pictures of the works you may pass in person.  This type of exposure not only helps individual artist, but the activist movements which they portray in their work as well. 

Follow street art platforms!: You can follow platforms like Street Theory which is an award-winning agency that connects street artists with communities and brands to bring art into all aspects of life and work. They have projects like Murals for the Movement which is dedicated to displaying and amplifying the street art of  BIPOC artists and movements. Many other accounts focus on highlighting activist street art of specific locations and can easily be found via a quick search on any social media platform. 

Donate your space!: If you have the physical space for street art to be displayed and you’re interested in supporting artists, reach out to arts or community organizations near you. From little kids with chalk to professional painters, there are plenty of people who feel that street art lets their voices be heard. Creating these spaces for conversation will not only beautify your community, but can help change it for the better.

Rachael Young is a PhD candidate at Boston College where she studies the use of activist street art in modern Irish and British history. She received her Bachelors in History with an Art History minor from Temple University and her Masters’ in History from Trinity College Dublin. She is currently based in Boston, Massachusetts.

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