Walking through your local neighbourhood, colourful drawings are pinned up in windows. Paintbrushes, instruments, and cameras have been dusted off in an effort to combat anxiety and depression during lockdown. Instagram is full of popular art recreation challenges that provide moments of humour during these uncertain times.
As our lives have been put on hold, people across the globe have turned to art. While quarantine restrictions have confined so many of us to our homes, with museums and galleries closed, artists have hit the empty streets of cities around the world. From Glasgow to Mumbai, coronavirus-inspired graffiti depicts our “new normal” — one of hand-washing, face-masks and toilet paper hoarding. Often playful, at times accusatory, the commentary reflects on life during a pandemic.
With vaccinations starting to be rolled out, many countries are slowly opening back up. When we come to look back on the COVID crisis, what stories will our urban environments tell us about this troubling period in history?
Hope in the Time of Corona
The coronavirus has impacted almost every aspect of our lives. Families have been unable to visit their loved ones in care homes or hospitals. Unemployment rates have soared drastically — the World Bank has forecast the worst global recession since World War II. Mental health services in the UK, already overburdened prior to the pandemic, are struggling to cope with the deterioration of the nation’s mental health. It is clear that the crisis will leave deep and long-lasting scars.
Los Angeles-based artist Hijack designed a mural that draws parallels between the pandemic and the chaos of war. In the image shown, two soldiers battle the “invisible enemy” that is COVID, armed with a feather duster, hand sanitiser and a vacuum cleaner. ‘I wanted to make a piece that reflected on the absurdity and fear to the COVID-19 outbreak,’ he told Sky News. ‘It felt like such a momentous time. We hadn’t seen anything like this in our lifetime, it was pandemonium…’
From the first precautions put in place in March, social distancing practices have become central to maintaining safety in our everyday lives. With a hug or handshake now posing potential harm, we have been forced to forfeit physical contact. Much of the pandemic-inspired street art seeks to retain human connection by reminding us of what is truly important: friendship, family and love. Graffiti artists have used their work to promote solidarity and express gratitude for front line health workers, employing favourite pop culture characters to encourage members of the public to wear a mask and stay home.
For street artists, pop culture references are an easy means of relating to the public; by playing around with characters that have shaped their viewers’ lives, artists can cast serious messages in a more playful light, without losing or alienating audiences. Such images also foster a strong sense of community, which has become incredibly important as we try to collectively weather the crisis.
And, of course, the meta-art references have appeared in their multitudes.
Distance or Resistance?
The intention of some artists has been to project messages of peace and hope simplicity during what has been a dark time for many. But what would street art be if it did not challenge or dissent? The year of 2020 has laid bare the flawed foundations on which modern societies and economies are built. It has also seen the world divided over government regulations — from travel bans to mandatory face coverings. The archive of pandemic street art reflects striking, thought-provoking commentary on the wider narratives of freedom, equality, and globalisation that have defined the beginning of the new decade.
COVID On The Rise? So What?
The global reaction to the initial outbreak was a mixed bag of diligence, dismissal, and outright denial. Countries who had been impacted by the worst cases of the SARS crisis in the early 2000s were swift to adopt strict measures. Others dithered over what course of action to take in the face of what they considered to be nothing more than a bad case of the flu. For those who were slow out the gate, a high price has been paid.
Artists have used the streets as a platform to take aim at governments and politicians across the world for their failure to act and protect their communities. It will come as no surprise that US President Donald Trump has been a popular target, especially in light of his controversial advice that injecting disinfectant could help treat the virus. Trump’s claims during the national emergency contribute to the wider climate of misinformation, “fake news”, and disillusionment that has plagued the US throughout his presidency — this time with a human cost.
His is not the only administration to be lambasted. In a similar vein, other artworks mock Brazil’s right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, who, when confronted about the rapid spread of COVID cases in Brazil, reportedly replied, ‘So what? What do you want me do to?’. Already presiding over a divided country, Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the crisis only fuelled polarisation between his anti-establishment supporters and state governors and health experts.
With the virus originating in Wuhan, China, calls have been made for the country to take accountability for its mishandling of the outbreak. China’s lack of transparency in reporting COVID infection rates has angered the West, exacerbating tensions and revealing a stark clash of culture. Australian artist Lushsux echos this frustration with his depiction of Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a hazmat suit while saying, ‘Nothing to see, carry on’.
His image alludes not only to China’s obsession with secrecy in its international relations (legal experts are looking to take China to the International Court of Justice for its failure to share critical information), but also touches on the accusations launched by US Officials who theorise that the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab.
A lack of decisive action has not been the only source of frustration. For people who have been respecting lockdown and government guidelines, the disregard shown by many has been infuriating. Remember the crowds who flocked to beaches and parks across the UK to enjoy the summer heatwave? Such complacency has created a rift between those who have tired of lockdown and others who fear the consequences of such visible indifference.
Artist Shannon Greenhaus, based in Pennsylvania, was concerned about the public’s lack of urgency in response to the virus. Situated on a busy street, she pinned up cardboard artwork in her window to promote safety and stringency. Her work includes the hashtags #StayTheFuckHome and #WearAFuckingMask that point to online websites where jargon-free advice can be found. ‘The information is clear, concise and sourced, which is awesome, since so many people think they don’t need to wear one,’she told the Guardian, ‘and arguing about why they should is exhausting.’
The phrases are featured alongside a sculpture of a 17th-century doctor’s mask worn by physicians who treated plague victims. In those times it was thought that the plague spread through poisoned air, and the sinister beaked masks were filled with herbs and other compounds that doctors believed would protect their nostrils and lungs — mistakenly, of course. Greenhaus’ artwork hearkens back to misconceptions surrounding the disease, which has killed many millions throughout history, and draws parallels with the lack of gravity she has observed in present day reactions to COVID. Her piece is one among many that urge the public to follow lockdown rules and stay at home.
My Virus, My Choice
In the early days and weeks of COVID’s arrival in the UK, local news sites broadcast shocking scenes in supermarkets and stores across the nation. Hordes of Britons were accused of selfishly buying-up toilet paper, soap, and pasta — frenziedly stocking freezers and cupboards as the corona apocalypse loomed ahead.
In Shoreditch, London, artist Pegasus left his stamp by way of a WWI recruitment-style poster featuring Boris Johnson directing the public to stop panic buying. In an article with the BBC, he said the artwork represents the ‘mixed messages from the government during this worrying time of uncertainty’. Like many others, the piece makes an obvious to gesture to the mass hysteria and supposed fear-mongering witnessed earlier this year.
Other images touch on the global protests, demonstrations, and strikes that have taken place in opposition to governments’ COVID responses. Protestors castigated extreme and anti-democratic measures for curtailing their civil rights. Reactions have ranged from resistance against unjustified state control, to more conspiratorial ideas.
Germany is a country whose citizens have been extremely outspoken about pandemic restrictions. Dissenting street art captures the outrage expressed by many thousands across the nation. German governmental COVID regulations have mobilised people from disparate backgrounds — including ordinary citizens, right-wing groups, and vocal anti-vaxxers — to form an unlikely alliance in several cities. The first protest, Hygienedemos (hygiene demonstrations), took place in March under the motto ‘Defend basic rights — say no to dictatorship’. The German public have used these platforms to voice their grievances, denouncing face-covering requirements as “muzzles” (a comment on attempts to limit free speech) and warning against forced immunisations.
Some critics even likened Germany’s recently passed Infection Protection Law, which hands the government increased power to impose COVID restrictions, to Hitler’s “Enabling Act” of 1933 — the legislation that paved the way for Nazi totalitarianism.
While many claim that far-right extremists have weaponised demonstrations to undermine the state, others have criticised mainstream news reporting in Europe and the US for overlooking citizens’ legitimate concerns regarding corona policies.
Parallels can be drawn with America, where the coronavirus coincided with a long-awaited election year. One mural, found in Berlin, references a post circulated on the internet earlier this year, proposing that the virus was a political tactic concocted by the Left to smear Trump’s campaign leading up to the election. Although it has since been debunked, the post was shared numerous times on various social media platforms. It comes as no surprise that the COVID outbreak has been followed by a flood of viral conspiracy theories. From milder claims based on pseudoscience to more convoluted speculation of a child sex-trafficking cover-up, the conspiracies have been out in full force.
(Un)Building Walls: The New Spaces for Public Debate
In what has been a year of great tension and change, street art seems especially powerful. The explosion of pandemic-inspired graffiti found on walls, pavements and mailboxes across the globe has captured the mixed reaction to the crisis with its candid and raw quality. While a number of murals have challenged restrictions, prompting bigger questions regarding state surveillance and free thought, predominant themes running through the artworks advocate for community and support of government guidelines.
One thing many seem to agree on is that the virus has opened our eyes to pre-existing problems. Artists have taken this opportunity to highlight the ongoing social and economic injustices that have plagued society long before the crisis, including the inequalities of capitalism, inadequate welfare systems, and poor treatment of refugees. See the Urban Art Mapping: Covid-19 Street Art website.
‘Will you still practice solidarity after tomorrow?’
Sean Yoro, who works under the artist name Hula, created his coronavirus cell wrecking ball on the wall of a construction site, which he felt was the perfect environment to represent the destruction that the virus has caused around the world. His image highlights how social, political and economic structures have crumbled when confronted with the virus — but, out of the rubble we can hopefully build a better future. As we start to recover, it is imperative that more robust systems (from health to food) are put in place that truly work to support all within society.
As in the past, new art movements will undoubtedly be informed by the pandemic — to what extent, we do not yet know. In the meantime, the immediate and fleeting nature of street art means it can respond quickly to world events and help foster political dialogue. Street artists have often been cast as outsiders and rebels; they are not afraid to break the law (and, in this case, lockdown) to make their voices heard, without relinquishing editorial control.
At a time when societies appear to be polarised more than ever before, with public policies and world leaders under close scrutiny, discourse has never been more important — and art more urgent.
Written by Rachael Irvine
Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska
For more art content, check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section