English professor Todd Lawrence, center, works to document and archive plywood boards salvaged from around the Twin Cities following this previous summer’s civil unrest, on January 25, 2021 in Northeast Minneapolis. The initiative, Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement, includes a partnership with the University of St. Thomas Art History department.

Documenting Street Art, St. Thomas Researchers Better Understand Crisis

Street art painted on the sides of buildings or plywood-covered windows can help us understand the complexity of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, reveals a mapping project spearheaded by St. Thomas faculty.

For the past year, a team of St. Thomas faculty and students have been working to systematically document and map street art. Dr. Todd Lawrence, Dr. Paul Lorah and Dr. Heather Shirey co-direct the Urban Art Mapping Project, which digitally archives the work of many artists and writers.

“People have used walls to claim space to tell their stories, to express their justified anger, and to show their vision for the future. Our goal is to amplify these voices and experiences and make sure that these textual and visual messages are not simply erased,” Shirey, an art history professor, said during the College of Arts and Sciences’ recent Teach-in Tuesday presentation.

Using their collective backgrounds in cultural studies, geography and art history, the team first started documenting COVID-19 street art (graffiti, murals, stickers, posters, light projections and more) then added anti-racist street art in early June 2020 after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd during an arrest. The Urban Art Mapping Project has 30K site visits and viewers from 153 countries.

Street art often reveals a very immediate, raw and direct response to events in the world, and is critical to archive, said Lawrence, a professor in English and American culture and difference.

“In the context of crisis, we argue that street art has the potential to reach a wide audience, transform urban space and foster a sustained dialogue,” Lawrence explained. “The role of art in the streets is particularly important at a time when museums and galleries are shuttered due to the pandemic.”

Some of the digitally archived street art in the database is aesthetically pleasing and others are more politically oppositional, as it relates to the mainstream. Nearly 2,000 works are documented in the digital “gallery,” most crowdsourced from the Twin Cities, but globally as well. The team records the locations to understand how people in different places are responding to these crises.

By marking on a map where each piece of art was located, Lorah helped the team identify “hot spots” where street art was concentrated, including the Hennepin County Government Center and the intersection of 38th and Chicago, where Floyd was killed.

“After George Floyd's murder, we found that the style and the content of art appearing in neighborhoods where property damage and arson was concentrated was very different from street art located farther away,” said Lorah, who teaches in St. Thomas’ Earth, Environment and Society Department.

In addition, the team found that other factors related to location could impact themes of the street art, including whether the neighborhood was predominantly white, Black or was on the boundary of two such neighborhoods.

Graffiti on Muddy Waters - text " crying bout they targets, we been targets"Lawrence showed art that was documented near the boundary of a white neighborhood and a neighborhood that is 30% Black. Spray painted on the side of a restaurant in Uptown Minneapolis, the artist had written “Crying ‘bout they Targets, We been targets.” The message uses African American vernacular, which Lawrence said suggests that it’s a Black voice speaking to a Black audience. However, when the team analyzed location, Lawrence said it’s meant to be overheard by a white audience.

“This is an example of ‘loud talking,’ Lawrence explained. “Where the voice speaks to another insider, but the person who's been critiqued or spoken about is in the room.” He added that “This message critiques the tendency for this white audience to be concerned about property destruction, as opposed to the destruction of Black and BIPOC bodies.”

Dr. Olga Herrera, a St. Thomas English professor who gave interdisciplinary commentary, said that when street art, elsewhere and from this project, is covered up or removed, it demonstrates where our society places value.

“[T]he law, isn't really designed to protect the community's interests … but rather to protect property,” Herrera said. “Protest art is a fundamental act of resistance to the value our society places on the protection of property and property rights before community or individuals.”

Citing disparities in home ownership, income and poverty rates between Black and white Twin cities residents, Dr. Kanishka Chowdhury, professor of American culture and difference and English, said unsanctioned art placed strategically in high-traffic areas speaks directly to these realities.

“The database is an act of solidarity with the artists and folks in our community who have been devastated by the murder of George Floyd and who will never be invited to a TV studio or have the benefit of an approved space from which to speak,” Chowdhury said. “The street art discussed speaks, not just to the violent act that ended the life of George Floyd, but also the systemic violence that erases lives and minimizes the suffering of the Twin Cities residents.”

In her response to the team’s presentation, Dr. Paola Ehrmantraut, who teaches in the Modern and Classical Languages Department, noted the street art concentration along Lake Street in Minneapolis, which is where many in her Latino community have settled.

“After the fire and destruction of last summer, Lake Street is being rebuilt, and it is not clear what will happen to the culture that produced that voice: outside institutions, outside the media, that unique voice captured in the street art, (the team is) saving from time for all of us.”

Ehrmantraut said the archive will be a vantage point from which the community can see whether how the city is rebuilt leaves room for those artistic voices.

The team intends for the Urban Art Mapping project to be ongoing, and perhaps it will capture evolution or change.

“We find that the work of many artists and writers, who are producing works in the street, expresses an understanding that we're living through a transformational, historical moment,” Shirey said. “Artists and writers we talked to convey disbelief and distrust, as well as hope and a vision for navigating new social norms. We think it's crucial that we document and analyze street art, not only because it's so ephemeral, but also because it captures the complexity of experiences shaping the world today.”