The May uprising and resulting movement challenged many to embark on deep internal journeys of learning and unlearning. At the same time, street artists around the world transformed public spaces with messages of anger, fear, frustration with broken systems, and visions of hope.
A team at the University of St. Thomas sought to document these expressions with the George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database. Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Dr. Heather Shirey, one of the project’s co-founders, and student research collaborators Chioma Uwagwu and Summer Erickson, about the power of street art to foster dialogue, reimagine the future, and how an archive sustains a movement and can serve to educate future generations.
What is the database project and why does it exist?
Dr. Heather Shirey: The foundation of the database is the idea that art in the streets represents a voice — or voices — that are not often heard in the dominant narrative, [voices] that maybe don’t come across in the mainstream artworld that you see in museums. We were interested in how the art that we see in the streets — graffiti, stickers, tags, murals, represents a viewpoint, a voice from the community.
What we came to realize is that there’s this huge explosion of art taking place across the Twin Cities and the world in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. We wanted to see what those forms of art are expressing and how narratives are constructed through street art, whether it be through simple graffiti or more complicated messages that are spray painted on walls, and [communicated] through murals as well. Now we’re seeing these stickers and posters too, so we want to try and understand all those forms of expression and how they intersect with each other. We’re interested in understanding how those messages change over time.
I think May 28 is the earliest we have anything documented in the database. It’s still a really active movement, and I hope it will be an active movement on the walls for a long time. We’re looking at how the narrative changes over time, what are the themes that continue to come up. For example, at the time of protests and the uprising there was a lot of anti-cop graffiti, and so we’re curious to see how that continues and where that’s located. Initially a lot of that was located by the third precinct, or a lot of it was over by the Target in St. Paul. Do the locations of that message shift over time? How will [messages] change as we hopefully do see systemic change take place?[The database is] crowdsourced because we can’t be out in the streets everywhere all the time documenting everything. We’re trying to capture a representative sample of art that responds to the death of George Floyd throughout the world. I think from that representative sample we can see the issues that are important here in the Twin Cities, but we can also see that these issues over policing, racial profiling, these are issues throughout the world unfortunately. We really want to capture the global impact of this movement and hopefully use the database as a form to propel that.
It seems sometimes like making an archive is a passive thing — that you collect things and put it in an archive and enter information, but really it’s very active. We’re soliciting things for the archive, we’re getting people to submit things to us, we’re making ethical decisions about what goes into the archive, we’re thinking about how to describe the things in the archive, and then we want to think about how to deploy it, how to send it out into the world so people will not just come to it to look at pictures, but will try and understand this historical moment and then, in the future, use it to teach anti-racism.
I notice that the archive is split into different collections — can you talk about how you decided to name different types of things that you were seeing and what some of those collections are about?
Summer Erickson: We have six or seven primary collections that we are categorizing under and part of that is just to make the database more useful for people. Another part of it is we’re seeing what there is more of and what there is less of, especially when it comes to certain parts of town or certain streets that were hit really hard — maybe they have a lot of ACAB or political criticisms, and that would go under that category. All together it gives us a good idea of what we have and where it is and an idea of what the environment is looking like at the time.
Chioma Uwagwu: A lot of things have multiple messages and so [I’m thinking about] how I decide which category I end up putting it in. For example, I put in one yesterday under “Intersectional” because it had a lot of Spanish text, a mask that had different flags on it. Whoever is putting it in is deciding — some things might have multiple messages and so how do you decide what you want to put it in?
HS: We also have a COVID-19 street art database that we started working on earlier back in April. One thing I’m noticing is with the death of George Floyd — especially here — we’re very absorbed in this movement [and] people were more focusing their attention on other issues besides COVID. Now the crisis is increasing in the United States, so I think we are starting to see more COVID and George Floyd issues come together. COVID disproportionally affects people of color, so we’re starting to see more art that looks at those systems and considers those kinds of nuances.
CU: “Hope, unity, and community” was a relatively new category that we didn’t think we would need to have, but as the weeks progressed on, a lot of murals about hope and love and community [that were] a lot larger, maybe took a lot longer to plan, [emerged]. As the weeks progress we’re seeing more and more of those messages.
Can you talk about the ability of street artists to capture a moment?
CU: I think street artists are equipped to handle these types of issues because they’re not bound by any rules. I think journalists have power, but they’re also bound in a certain way because they’re with companies, whereas street artists are on the ground, [they] don’t necessarily have a camera crew, and they’re just one of the people. I believe there are people who wouldn’t consider themselves artists who are making art. That’s been really great, it’s broken down the barrier as far as who can get involved in political movements.
SE: Street artists are not bound by institutions or fixtures of authority in a way that so many other artists might be who are used to having their art in institutions and can’t separate themselves from [institutions] in order to have their [message] taken seriously. I think street artists are one of the best spokespersons for this at the moment because they can speak without that tie to authority.
HS: I also think there’s the element of spontaneity that is sometimes produced from a very quick emotional reaction —it’s very spontaneous, it’s very much a living art.
I think about how many times we’ve seen one work be replaced by another, or a piece goes up and then everybody who sees it thinks it’s horrible and they don’t like the message and they take it down or they paint over it. It’s a living thing and it’s often produced from a place of emotion, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from a place of consensus but a consensus is sometimes gained by how people respond to it. There’s a chance for the work to really interact with the audience. Whereas if you go to a museum and you see a work that you really love or you really hate, maybe you talk about that with the person next to you, but you don’t have the chance to respond to it by painting over it or painting your own response to it right across from that.
SE: Everybody in the community is part of that conversation because they’re seeing it, they have the opportunity to join in or not.
How are you hoping the database gets used by people in the future, whether that be historians or just curious individuals — what are you hoping people take away from it and how are you hoping it contributes to the narrative of today?
CU: Teachers or professors or anyone who wants to teach anybody anything, they’re scared that they don’t have the information or the language. This is a database that at least scratches the surface so now you have a little bit of a template to go off of. If someone is talking about racism in Minnesota or in the North, we can think about ‘Okay here’s what some anti-racist street art is saying and here’s what some textbooks are saying, and here’s what some storytellers are doing as well.’
HS: I hope that it helps us preserve the complexity of this movement and the many different voices that are expressing different ideas and paths forward and hopes for what the future will look like. Sometimes we look back on history and we look at a moment like the Civil Rights Movement, sometimes the way that we tell the stories can become a little bit flattened. We don’t look at the complexity of MLK and his message — selected quotes are pulled out and I think we don’t necessarily see all the nuance. I hope that when we look back at this moment ten years from now, or 20 years from now, or even just a year from now, that we can really look at the complexity and the nuance of those messages
What has been the most eye-opening thing for you working on this project?
CU: I didn’t know people in Minnesota could get this angry. I’ve lived in Minnesota my entire life so I think: It’s a blue state, we’re progressive, it’s mildly passive aggressive, nothing really gets under anybody’s skin in a way that causes actual action — it’s just a lot of apathy that I’m seeing. And then people started protesting.
For me, it’s been so eye-opening seeing these [pieces of] art about Minnesota and from Minnesota. I’m sad that it had to come out in this way, but I’m so happy that this voice is finally coming across. I get to see the state in a different way than I’ve ever gotten to see it before.
I think art definitely sustains that anger because if it were a tag or two [people would think] ‘okay we’ll cover it up’ — and people have been covering them up obviously — but I think [the amount of work] sustains the anger, which is great.
HS: We have some local chroniclers in the Twin Cities who are just out documenting things everyday. There’s one in particular, a really dedicated photographer who is up at seven o’clock in the morning heading into the street and she’s sending things at 11 o’clock at night with details about where she took the photos.
I think documenting the work is an act of activism in a way. It’s active to go out and take photographs and try to elevate the messages on the walls. I didn’t anticipate that when we created an archive it would take on this activist role. I didn’t realize that I would have an understanding of an archive as having a role in changing society.
SE: I was surprised at how far the art reached. It was very impressive to me how much people got done, both creating the art and documenting the art and then sending it all to us. It makes me feel very hopeful and it makes me feel a little bit better because Minnesota is passively progressive and it did not have a real stance until now. It never actually spoke out. I’ve been going through the Hennepin History archives and looking at their Civil Rights newspaper articles. As I was reading through I was like ‘Oh my gosh we haven’t changed at all.’ Then when everything happened I was like ‘Okay something is finally happening.’ It’s been interesting from my archivist perspective to see history repeating itself but also taking a step further and [I think] ‘Okay this time maybe things will happen finally.’