Art and Social Justice: A Digital Archive of Street Art & Protest
Three days after George Floyd’s murder, Twin Cities artists Cadex Herrera, Xena Goldman, and Greta McLain created a now-iconic mural on the side wall of Cup Foods at 38th St and Chicago in Minneapolis. This piece was intended to transform a location that was a tragic marker of an extrajudicial antiblack murder into an important community space for memorialization, organizing, fellowship, and healing. Over time, this mural also became the focus of conflict and negotiation as members of the community sought to define the space in a way that recognized the need to mourn and prioritize the voices and experiences of BIPOC artists.
In the months that have followed, the mural has been vandalized and restored. It has also become a recognizable image far beyond the Twin Cities, and it is likely to endure over the course of time. Across the river in Saint Paul, the Midway neighborhood became the site of intense conflict between protesters and the police in early June, about a week and a half after George Floyd’s murder. In this context, graffiti reading "Mama" was spray painted on a wall of the former Walmart, located in the epicenter of this conflict. While simple in form and quick in its execution, we’d argue that this simple piece of text, a reference to George Floyd’s desperate plea for help, is as powerful as any larger, more enduring mural in its call for transformational change. However, given local responses to graffiti, “Mama” was bound to be short-lived. Within just a few days the piece was removed and its call for change was silenced.
Artworks created in the streets are by nature ephemeral and have the ability to capture raw and immediate individual and community responses; the meaning of these pieces is negotiated and shifts over time. Starting with works such as the George Floyd Mural and the Mama graffiti, the Urban Art Mapping research team, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students based at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, began working in early June 2020 to collect digital documentation of street art that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, ranging from monumental murals to small stickers, and including commissioned art as well as unsanctioned pieces.
We believe that visual responses to this act of injustice are an expression of the anger, frustration, and pain felt in communities across this country and around the world. The work is ongoing. As the uprising continues, these expressions need to be preserved. Beyond serving as a repository for this art, the database was created as a resource for students, activists, scholars and artists by way of metadata, including a description of key themes, geolocations, and dates of documentation.
While our project has its roots in the Twin Cities, as the work has progressed we have received submissions from around the world, evidence that this call for equity and justice has a global resonance. Images of Floyd accompanied by the text “I can’t breathe” appeared on walls from Brazil to Syria, joined as well by pieces criticizing the militarization of police around the world and the names of the many other victims of racially-motivated violence.
The protests in the Twin Cities appear smaller and quieter than they were in the summer of 2020, and many restaurants and shops have removed the plywood panels that were installed to protect glass during the uprising. Many works that expressed the raw justified anger that emerged in immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death are erased. But the calls for change must be continuous, and in some cases more permanent murals serve to amplify this message. Preserving a wide range of artistic responses over the course of time and around the world is crucial, as this allows us to understand the complexity of the movement.