Street art as public displays of free speech
On the streets of the Friedrichshain neighborhood in Berlin, near the center of town, a towering cement structure stretches over 300 meters long. Bright graffiti and inspiring murals have increasingly adorned its surface since The Berlin Wall’s partial destruction in 1989. Situated in one of the trendier parts of town, the wall is a popular place to take a stroll and bike along, and just beyond the old concrete border runs a picturesque winding river that intersects the city’s center.
Now an urban art gallery of sorts, the remains of The Berlin Wall mark one of Europe’s most iconic sites. Following the fall of the wall, several artists from around the world were commissioned to celebrate its demise with uplifting pieces depicting unification and world peace.
Among this artwork are images of world leaders, multicolored flags, and edifying quotes. But there is one panel in particular whose surface draws an unexpectedly large number of amused observers. Cameras and selfie sticks in hand, groups can be seen eagerly surrounding the art installation. As it turns out, the object of their fascination is not a historic piece at all, but rather, a new addition: a scrawled phrase written in white paint that reads, “F*** DONALD TRUMP!”.
The expression of political sentiment in the form of urban art is not unique to Europe, nor is it solely a product of recent times. Street artists, from Banksy to Space Invader to hoards of other anonymous urban creators over the years, have dedicated their lives to clandestinely filling the streets with meaningful, and often provocative words and images.
Urban art is a powerful platform for conveying messages mainly because of its physical and visual prominence. Typically unsanctioned, urban art installations are created in public places, eschewing the use of museums and conventional venues in favor of direct communication between artists and the masses. The goal is to attract attention and awareness, something that is usually achieved through not only the open location of the piece, but also based on its ability to combine an appealing image with a thought-provoking message. Today, urban art exists in some form in nearly every major city and is classified by many names including “smart vandalism” and “neo-graffiti.”
Although the urban art movement has steadily gained popularity since the 80s, current events have sparked an evolution in the nature and frequency of art installations. Notably responsible for the change is the upcoming American presidential elections. Indeed, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have inspired a wave of more political urban art discussing their policies, and at times, satirizing their personalities than ever before. The final announcement of the two candidates was a result as equally surprising as it was historically significant, and has left street artists with culturally relevant subject matter portray with their personal flair. Their public displays of political images have a way of using visuals to express popular sentiment, as well as challenge political beliefs.
Their messages, whatever they may be, are broadcast in the form of powerful pictures and words in strategically picked locations. This makes it so that audiences are essentially obliged to listen. After all, not everyone is inclined to read a newspaper article from an opposing point of view, but it is difficult to avoid an image of a tattooed Clinton plastered across the face of a building or a sculpture of a nude Trump in a park. In our increasingly visual society, images tend to carry weight with the potential to evoke emotion or become well-known symbols that people rally behind. Such was the case when street artist Shepard Fairey created and dispersed the immediately recognizable images of Barack Obama titled Hope and Change in his signature pop art style.
Whether expressing personal opinion, imparting a social commentary, or simply finding humor in the current political situation, urban artists in all corners of the globe have clearly been inspired by Trump and Clinton. If you’d like to see some demonstrations, they’re everywhere from the alleys of Los Angeles to the Berlin Wall.
Written by Alex Khan, Contributor