Ever since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, it has spread at unprecedented speed across the world. As cities or whole countries were placed under lockdown and are now slowly emerging from it, life as we know it has dramatically changed in the course of a few weeks. In an effort to curb the spread of the virus, various governments have used different methods such as limiting air traffic, closing educational facilities, quarantining people, and encouraging the population to practice social distancing whenever possible. In this context, street art has become one way of dealing with this situation, expressing solidarity among people, particularly in crowded urban spaces.
Several scholars have examined “graffiti” or, more generally, street art from various perspectives. While some view it as vandalism, others focus on its artistic value. Even though street art has become a career for some artists, Sondra Bacharach (2015) points out that street art still occupies “a metaphysically suspect grey area between illegal activity and bona fide art.” Similarly, Theo Kindyris (2018) argues that “graffiti can be understood as simultaneously disrupting authoritative spatial orderings, whilst superimposing its own alternative social geography onto the city.”
Street art has gained credibility and popularity over the past few decades as it often engages issues of social and political significance. One such issue of social importance is the current “corona crisis”, where street art as an artistic expression serves as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement.
A few examples from around the world illustrate the role that street art can play in combating the coronavirus. In Dakar, Senegal, murals on a university wall consisting of images and words in French echo “war” metaphors in the “fight” against the virus (“la lutte contre…”). The works advise people to use soap when washing hands, covering one’s nose and mouth, and sneezing or coughing into one’s elbow, not hands, if necessary.
Similar advice on how to protect oneself against the virus is given in graffiti in Binnish, Syria. The words in Arabic provide instructions to “protect against corona” (للوقاية من كورونا) such as:
“wash your hands thoroughly” (“غسل اليدين جيدا”),
“wear a protective mask” (“ارتداء قناعا واقيا”), and
“cook food well” (“طهو الطعام جيدا”).
The accompanying image portrays a likeness of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with his head represented as the coronavirus including its characteristic spikes.
Such a political message is also evident in the examples from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one piece of art, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is presented as wearing a face mask marking him as a coward (“Covard-17” in reference to “COVID-19”).
Another one depicts the president as a clown, imagining his face mask as the typical red nose of clowns and ridiculing his protective gear as “MÁSCARA DE BOLSONAROS CONTRA O CORONA VÍRUS” (“Bolsonaro’s mask against the Coronavirus”).
These works of art are instances of what Lisa Waldner and Betty Dobratz (2013) have called “microlevel political participation” as such artistic pieces “creatively express socio-political discontent,” according to Madeleynn Green (2014).
A mural in Mumbai, India, invokes a religious reference in its depiction of Gautam Buddha with a blue face mask.
Another religious motif appears in a drawing in front of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. The depiction of a blue-eyed, smoking face of the devil reads, “Zum Teufel mit Corona” (“To hell with corona” – literally, “to the devil with corona”).
References to popular culture and art are prominent in several of the works of art. In Berlin, Germany, a mural shows Gollum from Lord of the Rings desperately clinging to a roll of toilet paper, saying, “Mein Schatz!” (“My Precious!”). This image is an allusion to the presumed – and sometimes real – lack of toilet paper in German supermarkets during the “corona crisis”.
Barcelona, Spain, is home to a poster of the Mona Lisa with a face mask.
Street art in Pompei, Italy, transforms an iconic image of The Simpsons now all clad in face masks, watching TV.
Many of the murals serve as messages of hope. In Austin, Texas, a colorful work of street art reads, “Hope is stronger than fear.” Mingled with a message of hope in the context of the current healthcare crisis is an expression of gratitude on this wall of the Brescia hospital in Italy. Titled, “A Tutti Voi… Grazie!” (“To you all… thanks!”), it presents a healthcare worker lovingly embracing the shape of Italy in her arms.
The work serves as a thank you to all the healthcare workers who are saving people’s lives, especially in Italy, one of the countries hit worst by the coronavirus.
Overall, these works of art in urban spaces worldwide increase the visibility and awareness of the need to protect against the coronavirus. Advocating for people to take this threat seriously, this kind of street art represents humility, solidarity, and unity in the time of COVID-19. Oftentimes, the artists are not named. Their messages, however, come across as personal since the murals are hand-painted or crafted. This enables them to serve as catalysts of change in their communities.
The messages can be humorous and/or political, but they all share a non-authoritarian approach to making use of urban spaces. It is as if they were saying, “We’re all in this together.”
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