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 research team documents and analyzes everything from small stickers and quickly written graffiti to large, commissioned murals. Street art is usually very ephemeral—sometimes graffiti is removed in just a matter of hours. At the same time, some works come to be seen as “iconic” and will be protected and preserved in the streets, while some works of art and painted on plywood that is being removed, stored, and in the future exhibited in different contexts. All of these forms of art are important as nuanced expressions of this very complex and moment in history. Urban Art Mapping seeks to document all of these voices over the course of time and on a global scale.
Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art Database
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 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. 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 been receiving 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.