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Street Art as Activism: Say it and Spray it

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(Contemplating a piece of street art)

The words street art can conjure up many images: teenagers spray painting on the sides of buildings in the middle of the night, signs creatively displayed, and even 3-D forms that utilize everyday items such as mailboxes or stop signs. But what are these street artists trying to say? Why is this the most effective way to share their messages, and their beliefs?

What is it about street art that has the ability to move, inspire, and mobilize people to do and feel things they might not have experienced otherwise?

While street art and graffiti might seem like a more modern way to convey information or an idea, its origins are actually much older and surprising than you might think. In ancient times, etching an image or a few words into stone was a way of satirizing politicians, or quickly spreading a message. Some even believe ancient hieroglyphics to be a form of graffiti/ or street art.

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(This image is allegedly a work of ancient graffiti from Pompeii, depicting a well known politician.)

In modern times, street artists might have different methods than etching into stone, but the idea behind the act has remained the same; to be a voice, and to have that voice be heard, to bring attention to a specific issue, to raise awareness, to incite a call to action. In short, to communicate at a higher level.

I will take a look at several examples of street art from around the world and examine the messages they hold.

One of the most effective recent modern day uses of street art as a call to action arose during the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in 2011. As seen in this Mother Jones article, the street art and graffiti were displayed on outdoor surfaces in America, and across the globe.

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(Steps to Los Angeles City Hall, 2012. Source: Demotix.com)

Were the people who wrote and drew these images artists or activists? In my opinion, quite simply, they were both.

Here is an example of a nontraditional form of graffiti, “sky art” from the movement:

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(“Occupy Wall Street” written in the sky. NYC, 2012. Photo credit: Bucky Turco)

This photo below shows how the occupy movement in street art literally used the ground to display its message. Signs were created that people could then pick up and hold, creating the ability to turn someone just looking, into someone who was actively participating, giving them a chance to join the movement in their own way.

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(Protesters displaying their signs on the sidewalks. NYC, 2012)

The image below is from the Occupy “small street” movement that has sprung up in cities across America. It is a tiny, but powerful reminder to not forget the OWS movement, yet it takes up much less space, and I am doubting the “protesters” needed to obtain a permit.

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(Photo credit: Jodee Mundy. August, 2012)

An art installation that was created by the elusive street artist Banksy, appeared in London 2012, near the London Stock Exchange. He used his artistic abilities and star status to display support and bring attention to the movement.

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(Photo credit: Beth P.H.)

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(Street “sign” art)

While these images have much in common, what are they saying? What are people supposed to learn or feel while looking at them? I think that they are an excellent example of a through line in shared emotions felt at a cellular level. They are powerful images that create a sense of community and solidarity in the face of tyranny and oppression.

The Occupy Wall Street movement as expressed through street art, was one example of using words and imagery to increase awareness, but what about a different kind of movement? Racism, gender discrimination, and poverty are major concerns that are felt on a global scale. In the same way the OWS street art movement created unity and increased awareness, there are many examples that bring attention to other important issues. Among them:

Feminism, and respect for females. Artist Tatyana Fazlaizedeh hoped to call out men for mistreating women on the street, and make women more aware of how they are “street harassed” with her street art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile”. She posts small flyers with an image of a female and a quote to get her point across.

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(“My name is NOT baby”)

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(I’ll bet everyone has at least one example..)

Posts like the one above make the viewer self aware, ask hard questions and face realities that they might have otherwise suppressed, or been out of touch with. There is a level of reflection that comes with street art with a message. First comes the awareness, then, hopefully the activism and participation.

This well known example of street art is from Banksy. In it, a homeless man holds a sign saying, “Keep your coins, I want change”. This makes me think of how many people there are, around the world, living in poverty. People we walk by every day and never give a second thought to, people that would give anything for a second chance.

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(Photo credit: Chelsea Kehrli. 2011)

This image is from Los Angeles, and was painted by Skid Row activists and community residents that live within the city limits. It is blocks away from the Union Rescue Mission. The message is as clear as can be. I think it is meant to show that they are aware of the dire situations they are living in. It is not so much a plea for help as it is a call to action. Perhaps city officials will see it and take serious note.

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(Photo credit: Stephen Ziegler, 2014)

Below is a powerful example of creative street art that is open to interpretation. When I see it, I think of the increasing awareness regarding climate change. Yet, the powers that be still continue to deny the problem and believe it is not real. The street art is part of a miniature series called Cement Eclipses from global street artist Issac Cordal.

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(Photo credit: Unurth May 2013)

In Vancouver, Canada, the street art below was created in response to racist tags that had been scrawled across the city. Someone took it upon themselves to peacefully combat that with their own take on a map of the city. A strong message, done in a peaceful and respectful way.

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(Photo Credit: Jermalism, Vancouver, 2010)

There are many different forms of street art. There are images and quotes, both original and repurposed. They each might carry a different message, but all have the same goal of opening the mind of the viewer. The more I look for street art and graffiti, the more I find. What I have learned, is how important it is to keep my mind and eyes open every time I leave the house. You might see something beautiful, you might see something that makes you angry, but hopefully, you’ll see something that inspires you to learn about the issues of humanity that we must acknowledge if we are going to have the slightest hope of resolving them. Change is possible, but first we must open our eyes to the problem.




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