Protest art for popular expression

The appearance of murals and protest artwork in response to George Floyd’s murder challenges the idea that we are experiencing the end of public space. The COVID-19 pandemic has appropriated space for private use as well as limited the types of activities that can safely be completed in public. In response, however, acts of popular expression have re-appropriated public spaces. We observed that a majority of the art pieces appear on temporary plywood fixtures. Some exude more permanence, such as the now iconic mural located at the intersection where George Floyd was killed. Scholars emphasize that community murals such as these do not only serve as memorials, but are instruments of democracy. Tim Sieber, an urban anthropologist from the University of Massachusetts-Boston who studies murals, stresses that these are important tools for protesting injustice, and often attempt to “address issues of power, resistance, and representation.” The murals and art pieces on University Avenue represent the popular expression and reflect voices of the local community. Many have appeared on the public-facing sides of private buildings, though others have been stenciled onto the sidewalk itself. One interesting facet of these murals and spray-painted messages is that many of them contain hashtags. Although it is impossible to click on a painted hashtag, it still connects these community-based expressions with broader movements, such as Black Lives Matter. The efforts to link a specific piece with broader conversations and movements reflect a fundamental point that Sieber and colleagues’ make about community murals: they ultimately function to “address the future, recognizing its connection to the present and the past, and are active interventions designed to promote a more equitable and liberatory future.” Looking at the messages and motifs that appear in the murals along University, this point is easy to see. One word in particular seems inescapable: justice. 

The conflicting responses to COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder reaffirm Don Mitchell’s idea that public space is a struggle. He suggests that public space is made through constantly shifting efforts to center popular political expressions in public view. Responses to forces that threaten to silence or constrain popular expression create new ways of communicating in and through public spaces. This may also entail changes to physical space itself. As visible political statements that seek to raise public awareness and influence collective memory, the pieces of art and other remnants of social protest indicate that the ways in which public space is used are adapting to new circumstances. The content of the art pieces also challenges established understandings of public space by connecting local events and communities with collective movements at national and international scales.

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Why has protest art appeared at specific locations along University Avenue? It is not a coincidence that the majority of community murals, protest art, and graffiti on University appear in or near the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul and are evident in the Dale and Western Avenue locations we studied. Sieber and colleagues observe that murals often installed in such “stigmatized neighborhoods” and aim to counter “the stigmatization of the neighborhood in local media and popular perceptions….[to] bolster local self-esteem” and fight for justice. Additionally, it is relevant that light rail transit tracks and stations are part of much of University Avenue’s route. This increases the art pieces’ visibility and proximity to the rail line and potentially amplifies the message. Of course, protest art and murals are not new phenomena and decorative murals were installed before the uprising responding to George Floyd’s murder. Nevertheless, we see that the protest murals and art pieces that have appeared in the wake of this event are transforming the public spaces where they are located.