Art

IN PICS | Graffiti artists take the Covid-19 fight to the streets

Public artists across the world - and even in SA under the strictest lockdown - are creating works that comment on the novel coronavirus

03 May 2020 - 00:00 By Jo Buitendach
A mural in Dakar, Senegal, urges people to adopt hygienic practices, from washing their hands with soap to sneezing into their elbows to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
A mural in Dakar, Senegal, urges people to adopt hygienic practices, from washing their hands with soap to sneezing into their elbows to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Image: Getty

From a striking mural with a single word, "Fight", in Moscow to a simple stencil of the Mona Lisa wearing a face mask in Catania, Italy, and an amusing depiction of a portly US President Donald Trump as the coronavirus in San Francisco, the novel coronavirus has caught the attention of graffiti and street artists worldwide.

Earlier this month, the Guardian published a gallery titled "Coronavirus in street art" - a collection of images of large-scale works by diverse artists with one central theme: the fight against Covid-19.

A celebrated artwork by the street artist Banksy, Girl with a Pierced Eardrum, in Bristol, England, inspired by Johannes Vermeer's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, has a new addition: a giant face mask. No-one is sure if this was added by the guerilla artist himself.

Banksy's 'Girl with a Pierced Eardrum' at Hanover Place in Bristol, UK.
Banksy's 'Girl with a Pierced Eardrum' at Hanover Place in Bristol, UK.
Image: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
A work of street art in Catania, Italy, depicts the Mona Lisa with a face mask.
A work of street art in Catania, Italy, depicts the Mona Lisa with a face mask.
Image: Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images
Graffiti showing support for the heath workers fighting Covid-19 near Brick Lane in East London, UK.
Graffiti showing support for the heath workers fighting Covid-19 near Brick Lane in East London, UK.
Image: Kate Green/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Wherever there is crisis or turmoil, socially or politically aware graffiti and street art will appear. Take, for instance, the volume of message-driven graffiti in Palestine, specifically along the West Bank barrier wall. Or the prolific use of "Peace Walls" as a space of protest at the height of the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The wall becomes part of the message, or even a unifying space rather than a barrier.

Some see graffiti as vandalism, but others argue it is art. Either way, it has always had its place as a medium of protest. When societies struggle to be heard, graffiti, be it a large-scale mural or a scribbled slogan, becomes a voice for the voiceless and a way of spreading a message at the ground level.

Arguably the biggest driving force of graffiti is the sub-culture born on the streets of New York in the early 1970s, still very much alive internationally and in SA today. It is impossible to speak for an entire community, but the message of these graffiti writers is often not overtly political. Though this was definitely not the case for the 2016 US presidential election, when graffiti artists began to create large-scale pro-Bernie Sanders murals.

But what about the relationship between Covid-19 and street art in Africa?

In Senegal's capital, Dakar, RBS Crew, a graffiti collective, has created a 10m-long artwork that includes public health messages about washing hands, a thank-you to healthcare workers and even the number of a hotline to call for information. Because of the low literacy level in the country, the artists made sure that their artwork had a clear picture-based message.

The RBS Crew's 10m-long mural in Dakar, Senegal, features an array of public health messages.
The RBS Crew's 10m-long mural in Dakar, Senegal, features an array of public health messages.
Image: Alaattin Dogru/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At home in SA, things have been a little different. The Johannesburg inner city, normally an irresistible canvas for graffiti artists, has seen a drastic drop in new walls being painted. This correlates directly with the severity of our lockdown, in which police and army patrols on the streets have also meant a lockdown on artistic expression - legal or illegal.

Some of our major graffiti players were, however, able to squeeze in a few pieces before lockdown. Mein163 managed to give a shout-out (a public acknowledgement in graffiti culture) to Covid-19 and the lockdown in recent works. Bias, known for painting in storm tunnels around Johannesburg, produced some rather dystopian works, emblazoned with phrases like "Doomsday Sprays" and "This is the End".

Bias managed to squeeze in some dystopian works in Joburg before the city shut.
Bias managed to squeeze in some dystopian works in Joburg before the city shut.
Image: @Bias
Local artist @Mein163's recent work was a shout-out to the lockdown.
Local artist @Mein163's recent work was a shout-out to the lockdown.
Image: @Mein163

And with the whole world ensconced in Zoom meetings, online concerts and endless streaming, why should graffiti be any different? When an actual physical wall is unavailable, there are also digital equivalents.

Jozi-based graffiti artist Luck Mr Empty has been spending his lockdown creating clever digital Covid-themed images, which he has been sharing on Instagram (@luck_mrempty).

They include messages like "Keep Washing Your F****n Hands" and "Don't forget to sanitise your attitude." He may not have a wall, but that isn't stopping him from spreading the anti-Covid-19 message one upload at a time.  

Jozi-based graffiti artist Luck Mr Empty has taken his work online.
Jozi-based graffiti artist Luck Mr Empty has taken his work online.
Image: @luck_mrempty

He says: "This series was influenced by the global pandemic and the devastating effect it is having on the world, socially and economically. I felt the need to use my voice as an artist in spreading the message and also to vent my frustrations. Since we cannot go outside and paint on walls through murals, I had to use what was available, which is my stationery, art supplies, laptop, and social media.

"I am really excited about the moderate lift on the lockdown and hopeful that we'll be allowed to create public art soon, since that's how some of us make a living."