Street art in times of crisis

Artists and writers producing work in the streets – including tags, graffiti, murals, stickers, and other installations on walls, pavement, and signs – are in a unique position to respond quickly and effectively in a moment of crisis. Street art’s ephemeral nature serves to reveal very immediate and sometimes fleeting responses, often in a manner that can be raw and direct. At the same time, in the context of a crisis, street art also has the potential to transform urban space and foster a sustained political dialogue, reaching a wide audience and making change possible.

The Urban Art Mapping team archives everything from small stickers and quickly written graffiti to large, commissioned murals. Street art is often very ephemeral—sometimes graffiti is removed in just a matter of hours. At the same time, some works of art in the street are protected and preserved in the streets, and some works are on plywood that is being removed, stored, and in the future exhibited in different contexts. Together these works serve as nuanced expressions of this very complex movement and moment in history.

Urban Art Mapping is a multi-disciplinary group of faculty and students (undergraduate and graduate) at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The faculty co-directors are Dr. Heather Shirey (art history), Dr. Todd Lawrence (English and Cultural Studies), and Dr. Paul Lorah (Geography). 

We’ve been studying street art in St. Paul, Minnesota as a research team since 2018.  Our project is about identifying, documenting, and mapping street art, by which we mean everything from graffiti and tags to stickers, buffs, throw-ups, wheat pastes, murals, and projections. Geographic information systems analysis and ethnographic interviewing are an important part of our work as well. We started the COVID-19 Street Art Database in April of 2020 when our in-person interviewing had to be shut down because of COVID. Then, when George Floyd was killed just over a month later, we knew we had to start a database for street art that appeared as part of the racial justice movement. The neighborhood where we had already been doing work, Midway in St. Paul, turned out the be the epicenter of the uprising in St. Paul. We were suddenly seeing art everywhere and it was telling a story that we felt needed to be preserved.

Building a collection

The Urban Art Mapping project is exclusively in the digital realm. We made the decision early on not to collect any physical artifacts. Our database contains only images of street art, and we define that quite broadly – we consider graffiti and stickers to be of equal significance and value to the archive as commissioned murals, for example. Each record has at least one photograph (but sometimes more) and metadata that provides as much information as we have about the piece. We include the name of the artist if we know it and if the artist chooses to be identified, as well as the name of the person who documented it and submitted it to us (also according to their wishes). We identify key themes and we write detailed descriptions, providing as much context as we can. This often requires research, so it is slow work, and the database is always a work in progress.

The majority of the pieces in our database were documented by crowdsourcing. People have taken pictures and then submitted them to us. One of our goals is to decenter authority of the archive. Street art matters because it represents the voices of the community, often providing a counter-institutional perspective, and so a crowd-sourced archive is in keeping with the goals of this art form itself.

We intend for the database to be used for educational and research purposes. It is open to everyone, however, to look at. We hope that the images and metadata will be of interest to a broad, international audience, since the issues addressed are of concern around the world.

Analysis of street art

One focus of our project is to analyze the relationship between street art and place, and we explore how art shapes, and is shaped by unique neighborhoods. Early on, we surveyed and mapped the locations of graffiti and tags in a Saint Paul neighborhood. Then, we used a geographic information system to analyze how the location of street art is shaped by a neighborhood’s cultural geography. In areas we studied, it turned out that clusters of street art tend to be located near intersections, mass transit stops and commercial real estate.

In the context of a global public health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, street art has the potential to reach a wide audience, transform urban space, and foster a sustained dialogue. The role of art in the streets was particularly important at a time when museums and galleries are shuttered due to the pandemic. 

For artists working illegally, the lockdown period, depending on the location and mode of work, made it at once easier and more complicated to produce. Working in the streets might require violating stay-at-home orders and put one at a higher than normal level of risk, both legally and in terms of physical health. At the same time, in many cities, miles of fresh wall space – often in the form of plywood covered shop windows – served as an invitation to paint and write. Even as our physical movement in public spaces was limited due to public health concerns, we witnessed an explosion of street art around the world created in response to Covid-19.

The work of many artists and writers producing works in the street expressed and continues to express an understanding that we are living through a transformational historical moment. Artists and writers convey disbelief and distrust, as well as hope and a vision for navigating new social norms. We would argue that it is crucial that we document and analyze street art responding to Covid-19 not only because it is so ephemeral, but also because it captures the complexity of pandemic experiences around the world.

A special thank you to the following individuals and groups:  

  • Dr. Ann Graf, Assistant Professor, College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences, Simmons University for guidance in developing a core list of terminology for describing works of art
  • Christy Dent, Visual Resources Curator at the University of St. Thomas
  • Erik Moore, Head, University Archives & Co-Director, University Digital Conservancy University of Minnesota Archives