[Editor’s note: The article contains embedded Instagram images of wicked cool public art — worth disabling your blockers if you don’t see them.
During the height of the Spanish flu pandemic, afflicted Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted a pair of self-portraits. In the first, he sits alone in a chair beside his rumpled bed, bundled in a robe, blankets covering his legs. His face is drained of color and his mouth hangs open, as if gasping for breath. In the second, painted after his recovery, he lists, seemingly exhausted, toward the viewer.
Though there is little besides Munch’s art that so viscerally records the 1918 pandemic, in its aftermath, the arts flourished, as they so often do following times of social and political upheaval—think the Renaissance after the black plague, or even the large body of political art that emerged following the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It may be too early to gauge exactly what kind of art will emerge as the defining form of the post-COVID-19 period, but one media is staking its claim: street art.
The Development of Street Art
Street art is, of course, nothing new. From the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux to the wall scrawls of Pompeii and Herculaneum—Fortunatus loves Amplianda; Corydon is a country bumpkin; Apollinaris, doctor, slave of the emperor Titus, pooped well here; Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald (Epraphas appears to have pissed off more than one person; there’s also Oh, Epaphras, thou art no tennis-player); and many more—people have been writing and drawing on walls since they could hold chisels and paintbrushes.
It’s this transgressive quality that has given street art its naughty, statement-making character—graffiti on the Berlin Wall, the political murals Diego Rivera, the street tags of Jean-Michel Basquiat or the subway art of Keith Haring, or even the cheeky work of today’s most notorious (and notoriously secretive) street artist, Banksy. As Roger Gastman, author of The History of American Graffiti, has noted, “Overall, people want to write on things to be known. To be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.”
The street art of the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged partly as a counterpoint to the harrowing images on the news—bare grocery-store shelves, masked people waiting in long lines, freezer trucks parked on the streets outside hospitals, awaiting the dead. It’s also partly a reaction to the eerily empty streets of most cities, which has allowed the underground to emerge into the daylight.
Sei Shimura, a street, graphic, and fine artist based in Los Angeles, says, “I feel like street art is the voice of the people. It allows artists to express what the people are feeling as a general collective. It’s uplifting, sharing inspirational messaging and spreading the positive.”
Ending an “Aesthetic Pandemic” in the Midst of a Physical One
So far, the largest concentration of new street art has emerged in cities with high population density, like New York, Los Angles, London, Amsterdam, and São Paulo. In the United States, the trend started along the West Coast, thanks both to its temperate weather and large population of artists, and in New York City.
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North Adams, Mass. competes handily with cities all over the Northeast both for quality and quantity of public art. Murals all over the downtown area have brightened walls and spirits, as well as causing residents to think about the character of their hometown. For a good photo essay of some of the city’s most visible ones give a read to this piece at Berkshire Visual Art. For an impressive time lapse video of Berkshire-based artist, Melissa Matsuki Lillie creating That’s Gneiss, on Holden Street, North Adams, visit her blog.
Evan Meyer is the co-founder, along with Paul Shustak, of tech platform Beautify, which helps match landlords and businesses with street artists for original collaborations that turn blank exterior walls into vibrant open-air galleries. The company launched in early 2020, just before the pandemic flourished here. Beyond ending the “aesthetic pandemic” of “ugly-wall syndrome,” as Meyer puts it, of the country’s many industrial and institutional areas, the art brightens cities and helps elevate the collective mood of a community. It also deters vandalism by up to 95 percent
“Things that are in disrepair tend to stay in disrepair,” Meyer says. “We can encourage creativity and empower change in our environment if we care enough. Art changes how people feel for the better and makes them want to engage. It creates landmarks people want to experience.” It also has proven to be an economy booster: In Santa Monica, where Meyer is based, streets with dedicated mural projects have seen a 5 to 10 percent increase in revenue.
Street Art as Collective Therapy
For artist Pony Wave, her response to COVID-19 through mural is as much
a call to action as it is an expression of global solidarity.
For California artist Pony Wave, who painted the mural Stay Safe! in Venice Beach, featuring a masked couple leaning in for a kiss, the proliferation of street art isn’t surprising. And thanks to social media, it’s no longer tied to a specific place or community. Now, she says, “You could have a million people look at your art in a single weekend. In a gallery you don’t get that experience. . . . Now artists can be heard.”
(There is, perhaps, a separate argument to be made about the parallel between social media itself and street art. Our culture of snapping everything from a waterfall-punctuated hike to a deliciously juicy burger at our favorite restaurant is partly a quest to stamp “I was here” on moments in time.)
The sharing reinforces one of street art’s main tenets: that it’s for everyone, a universal language that unites even when we feel divided. Its message of hope and solidarity can be as much a collective expression of “We’re in this together” as commentary on issues that come to the forefront during a pandemic: socioeconomic disparity, xenophobia, and the controversial decisions (or the lack of them) made by those in power.
It also offers a man-made bit of “color therapy”—a concept that has yet to be subjected to rigorous scientific research, but has long been thought to have an effect on mood, stress, and happiness, and has been incorporated into architecture and interior design for centuries.
For Rodrigo Ardiles, a visual artist and the producer of the Dundas West Open Air Museum in Toronto, the bold display of color signifies important landmarks, and suggests cultural evolution and healing. “We create murals that speak to what we need for our biological coexistence,” he says. “Making sure that public art is visible is part of what the community needs as a collective therapy.”
Street Art in the Post-COVID-19 World
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for many people to think beyond their immediate needs of paying the rent and buying groceries, let alone what type of art can or should define the period. But in looking ahead, it seems unlikely that big-budget venues and projects by art-world supernovas will be the answer. “I am not sure this is going to accelerate the dominance of the mega-galleries and the mega-artists and the mega-wealthy,” says New York City gallerist Jane Kallir in an article on ArtNet News. “Are we going to have an appetite for a big silver Jeff Koons bunny after this?”
Still, if history is any indication, artists and their work are better equipped to lead the charge for societal change. Myer says, “What people haven’t realized for all of these years is that art is not a luxury. It’s a necessity in people’s lives if you want them to feel uplifted, cared for, positive. Right now, there’s an opportunity to bring people together, to create streets that are uplifted and engaging.”
Shimura agrees. “I feel like street art is going to be the new standard of seeing and experiencing art,” he says, pointing to the indefinite closures of museums, galleries, and art fairs.
While we don’t yet know how influential street art will become post-COVID-19, its colorful celebration of human resilience is just the antidote we need to the pall cast by disheartening news and the monotony of social distancing. For your next outing, put on your mask and head for the streets of your own town or city—and give those murals and graffiti you usually speed-walk past, on your way to something more pressing, a second look.
Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.