Street Artists Step Up As COVID Crisis Narrators
2020’s latest global symbol? A stenciled nurse in a face mask.
Street art culture often spreads in reaction to events and social culture, leaving its mark on the streets for passing eyes to inhale. Absorbing the street art of a city helps peek into what its undercurrents are expressing, from issues to aesthetics. As makers of this ongoing and regenerative artistic process, street artists are capable of swift and flexible responses to new information, ideas, events… Along this surreal stretch of events, from LA to Mumbai, Dakar to England, these artists are mobilizing as interpreters of the new abnormal, on their own or as part of awareness campaigns.
“Cancel plans not Humanity” reads a recent mural of Los Angeles based Corie Mattie. Another one of her walls introduces “The Hope Dealer”, an ominously bright figure dealing love to the occasional passer-by in LA — and to anyone who purchases the $5 print: “Now you’re a hope dealer too.”
Many street artists have harnessed the power of their urban canvas to support relief and awareness efforts, call for social unity, but also condemn the leaders who were slower in their own call to action.
But what type of impact can street art have when the streets are technically off limits? And how exactly are these urban narrators telling and reflecting stories, as the whole world has the same conversation?
Illustrating the collective experience can help nurture compassion and a sense of personal responsibility. These are vital organs for our ability to coordinate global actions, in a time where few can disrupt the many. By reminding that we are all going through the same thing on public surfaces, street art can humanizes the ‘others’ who could be harmed if we don’t respect the isolation.
Through these visual conversations, artists can develop a deep connectivity to urban spaces and issues faced by people. As these spaces play a significant role in our shared crisis experience, muralists spring up as natural, harmonizing narrators.
Spray Can Awareness
Some artists have been taking advantage of the high visibility of murals to directly converse with people about life-saving behavior changes.
In Dakar, some gatherings continued despite the declared state of emergency. To counter this, the educational social activist crew Radikl Bomb Shot took to their spray cans. With color pops of clear visuals and direct instructions, they illustrated proper hygiene practices and emergency numbers on walls, their characters adorned with beautiful fabrics.
Splashing the themes of social distancing, washing hands and staying home onto public walls has the effect of making it all more real, perhaps realer than alarmed words of people in suits on TV. In India, calls to sneeze in your elbow in order to ‘catch it bin it kill it’ appeared while the government was still assuring that no local transmission of the virus was taking place.
In places where the state’s painfully slow reaction risked the lives of many, street artists helped bring the virus to the public spheres’ reality before country leaders did.
In Portugal, the authorities themselves hired street artists to help spread the message. After covering Lisbon in “Stay Home” wheatpastes, Salvador Colaco was commissioned last week by the mayor of Cascais and a local youth organization to continue his one-man awareness campaign. Since then, he’s put up over 100 more prints throughout the city, his hoodie-glove street art uniform eerily mirroring the healthcare workers he pastes.
Support and Celebration
As healthcare workers at the frontline of the crisis need and deserve unconditional support from us, our governments and our systems, the masked nurse has become the rallying emblem to celebrate and encourage.
In the post-crisis world, physical and mental health ramifications loom for healthcare workers. Their faces, masked for battle, have been massively reinterpreted all over the world in shows of public support.
With our increased connectivity comes the opportunity to harness collective action. Amplifier Art, a grassroots design lab and “art machine for social change”, has launched a vivid campaign, calling on visual artists to create posters promoting health and safety to raise large-scale awareness and unity.
Amplifier Art’s campaign aims to “help flatten the curve through education” and “help promote mental health, well-being, and social change work during these stressful times.” The 60 selected artists are offered $1000 in cash prizes, while their creations are uploaded as high-resolution free downloads.
Every day, a new one of these creations is projected onto the NYU Langone Hospital. Amplifier Art has announced the expansion of projections to other surfaces around the States.
Murals for Hope
Vancouver Mural Fest is beautifying the city’s closed businesses with illustrations of resilience. The “Murals for Hope” campaign will color up the plywood boarding up storefronts, as a nod to a more dynamic future for these spaces. Commissioned by the city and specific districts, the project reflects what a peaceful state and street art relationship can look like.
A similar but more permanent initiative is underway in Toronto, where Arts & Culture agency Kadence World is partnering with affected local businesses to make wall space for “community positive murals throughout downtown”.
Power to the Prints
The many incredible fund-raising art movements make it possible to support people in need, whether in affected communities or the healthcare sector, and spruce up your life with some art in exchange. France’s SAATO Gallery project has been auctioning incredible daily art prints, from watercolors to acrylic to spray-paint to collages, with proceeds going to various hospitals throughout France.
Other artists are independently offering art as rewards for donations. LA-based Kai raised $80 375 in 24 hours to purchase masks for health care professionals.
Meanwhile, Kobra’s trademark opaque color grids show the faces of all religions side by side, united by the same prayer. Through his Art of Helping project, the Brazilian artist is fund-raising for food and sanitary kits for refugees, offering his creation in return.
Illustrating collective grief
“This is for everyone that we have lost and sadly, those we will loose in the days ahead. It is a depiction of the angel of resurrection, a statue from the Italian sculptor Giulio Monteverde to commemorate deceased members of the patron’s family. I painted it from the ground with a roller extension pole, stopping several times to lay low when the police were called. It is such a small risk when I think about the people on the frontlines in the hospitals, whose bravery I cannot even fathom. From Italy to here to everywhere in the world, we hope for mercy.”
Despite the challenges facing it, the street art community is stepping up into its social commentary role, narrating a new international wave of connection and confined innovation.
By layering physical and virtual walls with calls for solidarity, awareness, and political accountability, street artists are revitalizing necessary conversations with brush strokes, color, and visual poetry. They have taken on an essential global role in diffusing information, hope and creative bonds — a resilient and relevant turn of events, for a movement born on the margins.
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” — Nina Simone
Purchase and donate from some of the mentioned initiatives:
Amplifier Art store https://store.amplifier.org/
Corie Mattie: “The Hope Dealer” prints and custom masks (one mask purchased = one mask donated). https://lahopedealer.com/
JR x Morro da Providência: Donate health and food kits to the families of Providência, Brazil. http://www.canartchangetheworld.net/casaamarela/donate
Kobra Street Art: Donate health and food kits to refugees in Brazil. Instructions in these photos.
In the Rough & Absurdly Well virtual art auction: Supporting D.C.’s affected families and relief efforts http://www.intheroughstyle.com/bid-to-fight-covid
Saato Project Art Auction: Support France’s hospitals and healthcare workers https://www.projetsaato.com/galerie-des-oeuvres/
COVID19 Solidarity Response Fund — https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/donate