ART CRIMES: The Ebb, Flow & Dilemma of Protest Art
by Kari Lydersen
On August 1st, 2000, about 180 state police troopers in riot gear
surrounded a warehouse in Philadelphia . A police helicopter attempted to
land on the roof. Police took a circular saw to the locked door. Once the
armed brigade busted into the building, they arrested everyone inside. The
arrestees were held on a bus for 10 hours without water or bathrooms; they
were told to "piss on the floor" according to Dave Bailey, one of those
arrested. Many of them, including Bailey, spent 12 days in detention.
Bailey's bail was set at $10,000. For five days he was held in segregation,
in a two-person cell where he was held for 23 hours a day.
Making puppets for the protests during the 2000 Republican National
After arresting the puppet-makers in Philly, the police proceeded to seize
and destroy hundreds of puppets and effigies, the collective fruits of
weeks of work by hundreds of people. Only a handful of puppets which had
been removed by protesters earlier were saved, including 138 skeletons
representing all the people executed in Texas during Bush's reign as governor.
According to the puppeteers, police initially refused to even tell them
what they were being arrested for. Police eventually charged the
puppeteers, or puppetistas, as some have humorously dubbed them, with
"obstructing a highway" (though they were inside a warehouse), and
"possession of instruments of crime"in this case, puppets. In an even more
surreal move, police claimed that the artists were planning to release
venomous animals during the convention. A rare animal dealer with a
truckload of poisonous animals was indeed passing through the city during
the time of the convention, though the dealer was not a protester and had
contacted the police in advance asking about the safety of traveling
through the city.
"There were all sorts of wild reports the cops put out," said Bailey. "We
had taken every pain to make our efforts transparent. Everyone knew about
it. Obviously it was very dangerous in terms of ideas."
The charges against most of the puppeteers were finally dropped in
December, largely because the undercover police who had posed as union
stagehands to infiltrate the puppet-making operation couldn't make
identifications. Some of the artists are still facing serious felony
assault charges, however.
The puppetistas currently have civil suits in the works. The American Civil
Liberties Union has stated that the raid was one of the most egregious
modern examples of preventive detention and First Amendment abuse.
As street demonstrations, particularly those against globalization, have
grown over the past year and a half, starting with the massive anti-WTO
protests in Seattle in late 1999, political protest art, including puppets,
street theater, stencils, posters, murals and graffiti has enjoyed a
resurgence. All were in ample evidence at the anti-IMF protests in
Washington D.C. in April 2000, the Republican and Democratic Conventions
during the summer, at the anti-IMF/World Bank protests in Prague in
September 2000, and at the 2001 Presidential Inauguration, where, despite
the authorities' banning of puppets in the protest area, some creative
protesters responded by smuggling puppets in as signs that could be
reassembled in puppet form.
A History of Ebbs and Flows
In the US, political street art flourished amid the revolt of the '60s.
Murals, a staple of the Mexican Revolution and other international
movements, gained prominence as a community-based art form in the U.S. in
the late '60s and burgeoned over the next few years as funding and public
support for them became available. The National Endowment for the Arts
(NEA) and other mainstream agencies started making significant funds
available to muralists and public art projects in the mid '60s, making more
projects possible but also putting constraints on the content of
publicly-funded work. The Art Workers Coalition in New York and the Los
Angeles Council of Women Artists were among the activist art groups formed
in the '60s who used government funding for politically dissident projects.
But pressure from city governments and mainstream community groups blunted
the political edge of the mural movement by the mid '70s, spurring groups
like Artmakers to form in the early '80s with rejuvenated radicalism.
Though progressive politics muted in the '80s, political public art scaled
new heights of sophistication, participation and humor throughout the
country. Many attribute this to the wealth of artists who came of age in
the '60s and to the teaching of political and public techniques in
mainstream art schools throughout the '70s.
The 1980s: A Heyday of Sorts
When black graffiti artist Michael Stewart was arrested and strangled to
death by New York police in 1985and when all the (white) officers involved
were acquittedan army of his fellow political public artists rose to his
defense. Political street art in New York City protesting his murder and
the climate of police brutality mushroomed almost overnight.
"The medical examiner removed his eyeballs so there wouldn't be evidence of
the strangulation," said Seth Tobocman, who created numerous posters and
stencils protesting Stewart's murder and the acquittal
of the guilty cops the following year. When a diverse and highly
politicized group of local artists called Artmakers Inc. launched the
ambitious "La Lucha Continua" mural project at La Plaza Cultural in the
quickly-gentrifying Lower East Side where Stewart had done much of his
work, his slaying emerged as one
of several interconnected themes engaged by the project, including
apartheid, evictions, US intervention in Central America, the disappeared
in Guatemala, homelessness and the power of grassroots community organizing.
Political public art was almost synonymous with life for Stewart, Tobocman
and their crowd on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1980s, which
included activists and artists from virtually every economic, educational
and ethnic background. One typical day found Tobocman with a group in
Washington Square Park painting a mural of cuffed hands decorated with the
stars and stripes of the American flagan oblique statement on electoral
"These Rastafarian drug dealers ran the park, so we used their system of
lookouts. We had them watching our backs while we did this mural. Then
these kids from New Jersey came in and we gave them some black spray paint
and they painted all over the arch. It was this amazing moment of all these
different people working together."
With Reagan in the White House and gentrification, police brutality, and
landlord-induced arson rocking the city, the large and vibrant political
artist community responded with anger and joy, putting their creativity to
work in both legal and extralegal ways to thwart the system. Musicians,
poets, eccentric orators and other creatively-inclined rabble-rousers
formed a loose network with professionally-trained and self-taught visual
artists, who blanketed the city with unauthorized political murals,
stencils, fliers, tagged slogans, impromptu performances, speak-outs and
Tompkins Square Park was an unofficial political art gallery and
performance space, with speeches, blues, reggae, drum circles or punk music
echoing from the band shell. Stencils festooned the sidewalks and
political fliers enveloped the lampposts for blocks around. Graffiti was at
its height for much of the ^A'80s, still more or less the domain of the
ghettos where it was born, but blossoming into new and more sophisticated
political and aesthetic styles. Stewart was just one of many graffiti
artists working hand in hand with activist artists of other sortsa synergy
seen much less frequently today.
Much of the most powerful work of the '80s combined the efforts of both
gallery and activist crowds. The homeless performance group the Los Angeles
Poverty Department (LAPD) put on street theater about the plight of the
homeless, poor and mentally ill. They were hauled away by police to
sanitize the city for the 1984 Olympics. Greenpeace activists attached
banners to garbage barges, the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore, jumped
from smokestacks, staged mock fashion shows and created other visual and
guerrilla theatre works to protest nuclear power, pollution, and animal
cruelty, among other issues.
Gran Fury and ACT UP launched biting and provocative AIDS-activism and
anti-homophobia crusades in New York, sometimes utilizing corporate
advertising methods as with the then-shocking "Kissing Doesn't Kill" bus
and billboard campaign. They also circulated stickers, T-shirts and
placards with eye-catching images of penises and slogans like "Sexism Rears
its Unprotected Head AIDS Kills Women," and "The Government has blood on
its hands one AIDS death every half hour." To protest media coverage of
AIDS, in 1989 Gran Fury printed a four-page New York Crimes parody of the
Times and wrapped it around thousands of Times papers inside vending
machines at 4 a.m. The AIDS quilt also made its rounds of the country in
the late '80s.
Feminist groups were among the most active during the ^A'80s: the Guerrilla
Girls donned gorilla masks to protest male-dominance of the art world and
larger feminist issues. Artist, writer and video producer Suzanne Lacy's
nationwide projects including "In Mourning and in Rage" (actually created
in 1977) and "Immigrants and Survivors" placed costumed women in public
places to whisper or scream about violence toward women and other feminist
issues. In Chicago, New York, Houston, San Francisco and other cities the
Women's Action Coalition used visual and action-oriented art to protest
physical and legislative violence against women.
Across the country countless shifting groups and collectives painted
overtly political murals with and without official permission. These
included an exploding number of Chicano murals in California; anarchist,
labor and housing-rights murals along Haight Street and throughout the
Mission District in San Francisco; and in New York the "La Lucha" project
and Group Material's excellent and broad-ranging poster and mural campaign.
The 1990s: A Low Point
During the late 1990s, several graffiti artists were fatally shot by police
and black and Latino graffiti artists were constantly harassed and
physically attacked by police. But none of these incidents drew a response
like the murder of Stewart did.
Big Juss, a New York graffiti and hip-hop artist, used to throw his name up
all over Manhattan and spend all night riding and tagging the trains.
Today, he sticks to New Jersey suburbs because of the draconian laws that
slap illegal graffiti and political artists in New York with thousands of
dollars in fines and jail time. The only "graffiti" in Manhattan which
bears his name, actually that of his hip hop group, Company Flow, is a
graffiti-style ad done by his former record label without his knowledge.
"I'm not sure how I feel about that," he said, wincing slightly. Much of
Manhattan's public art of the old grassroots political forms, murals,
posters, graffiti, is in fact advertising for fashion, music, alcohol,
software, food. The murals and stencils of political figures and issues
done in the 80's are largely absent.
While protest art remains, the current political art scenes in the major US
cities revolve largely around small, close-knit, often male-dominated
networks and a limited number of high-profile individual causes, with Mumia
Abu-Jamal's being the trendiest. In New York, the once-raging Tompkins
Square Park scene and various other political collectives have largely
dropped out of sight, due mostly to quickening gentrification and a spate
of stifling "quality of life" laws.
Robert Lederman is one of the city's most visible political public artists.
Lederman is a career artist who was politicized by former New York mayor
Rudolph Giuliani's attacks on street artists and who quickly became one of
the mayor's harshest and untiring critics. The unflattering cardboard
caricatures of "Ghouliani" , which he carries and passes out at demos have
riled Rudy so much that he had Lederman arrested on disorderly conduct
charges more than 40 times and even tried to outlaw removing cardboard from
dumpsters. Lederman laps up the Mayor's hatred proudly and points to
Giuliani's persecution of him as a sign of the lack of other political
public art going on.
Susan Green, a 20-year fixture in the San Francisco art scene, says she
feels "pretty alienated" today in San Francisco because of the lack of a
strong political art scene.
"The ripping down [of] posters and painting over things definitely has a
dampening effect on people," she said. "There still is a lot of postering
going on, but there was a point where it was a much more vibrant form of
communication and people were putting up posters not only to advertise
events but to express ideas. I haven't really seen that happening in years,
[not] since the neighborhoods started gentrifying."
"There are still quite a few walls being painted, but they're not as
political," added Miranda Richardson, another San Francisco artist who has
been working in the Mission community for 25 years and who went to
Nicaragua and the West Bank with Green. "Most of it is spray art, which
isn't as issue-based. I wish it was. Part of the reason is that there isn't
an overt movement. There has to be something for it to bounce off of."
Like Richardson and Green, many of the artists of the ^A'80s continue doing
politically-engaged public art. But a majority of the notable groups have
folded, dwindled, lost their oppositional edge and/or become more
concentrated in the gallery world than the public sphere. Participation in
Guerrilla Girls events dropped drastically through the early '90s and
became more and more insular. Gran Fury and ACT-UP drifted toward more
introspective, less angry works as the nature of the AIDS crisis and public
attitudes evolved. Group Material became more gallery-oriented, perhaps a
victim of its own success, and most of its members drifted away. The
Women's Action Coalition dissolved from internal struggles and exhaustion.
Many individual artists tended toward galleries or books as they grew tired
and frustrated with the activist scene, looked for more stability, or
started families. The bottom line, as Richardson said, is that the state of
the political movement was no longer sustaining the art.
"It has to do with the demise of the left in America," said Greg Sholette,
an art teacher and founder of Repo History, a radical New York public art
group which continues to put out political public works. "Academia has
taken over some of that, people who would have been political leaders have
become professors. They've taken away the idea of using public space for
Graffiti & the Protection of Capital
Until the activist resurgence of the past two years, and the obvious
potential it has to seize the popular imagination, graffiti, with its
greater threat to property values and its exaggerated ties to "gangs" and
"crime" struck considerably more fear into the hearts of landlords and
In 1995, Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell announced that "One of the worst
problems facing this city is graffiti," while unveiling a new
zero-tolerance anti-graffiti campaign. "While it can't kill or maim,
graffiti is a more insidious problem. It can kill morale." An article by
the Kensington Welfare Rights Union notes that Philly spends $3 million a
year fighting graffiti and that graffiti artists can end up with $10,000
fines and up to five years in jail. The laws also hold parents responsible
for their kids' graffiti and fine property owners who don't clean up
graffiti on their property.
Bus stop bench advertisements in Oakland say "NO: Drugs, Driving Drunk,
Graffiti," equating painting with potentially deadly drug use and drunk
Costly anti-graffiti programs are ironic considering that at the same time
cities are spending millions to fight graffiti, they're pouring money into
after-school art programs that serve essentially the same purpose as
graffiti, giving "at risk" kids a wholesome creative outlet.
The Debatable Politics of Graffiti
Fifteen or 20 years ago graffiti might have appeared to be the obvious
inheritor of the political street art tradition, a new grassroots form
produced by the most disenfranchised and oppressed of the country's youth.
But Tobocman and many other political artists of his generation are
skeptical about the artistic and political growth and potential of
graffiti. Many say they respect it for what it is and see it as a potential
springboard, but they label the current scene as more about ego and
trendiness than power or politics.
"As an instructor and youth organizer I see it as something that can be
very useful and lead to other things," said Chicago art teacher and
political muralist Robert Valadez. "But 90% of it is very uninspired and
derivative, mainly about competition and getting your tag up. Ideally,
it's the beginning of a belief system and a part of one phase of their
lives that they'll branch out from."
Casper, a long-time Chicago graffiti artist who, like the political artists
has now gravitated to the gallery scene, doesn't think graffiti artists
make any claims to be political, and doesn't think they should be expected to.
"It's two completely different realms, it's a non-issue," he said. "Some
artists might be political but their graffiti isn't about politics. It's
not about changing the world, it's about being a superstar. This is their
way to be a star. I think even for political art you would find that.
Though the person might be political, their art is about being a star.
Diego Rivera was obviously a political person, he was involved in
assassination attempts, but I think his art was his show-off aspect."
Robert Muniz, a teen-age graffiti artist in San Antonio, agrees. He can
make a good case for graffiti being political in that it takes back public
space from the system, but he readily he admits he does graffiti mainly for
the fun and glory. "I do it for myself. I just love it. Someone sees my
name over and over, I'll walk through the mall with my crew and everyone
knows who we are."
A survey of the many glossy graffiti magazines shows scant mention of
political issues or works among the tales of the street, disses of other
artists and misogynistic attitudes.
But there are graffiti artists doing overtly political work, and some of
the most visually striking and visible political art in the country, at
that. "Eskae" and "Twist" are two Bay Area (California) artists who
regularly attack capitalism, the military-industrial complex, corporate
advertising and the US government. Twist, aka Barry McGee's work commonly
features bloated, evil-oozing capitalist pigs with dollar signs floating
around. One of his pieces shows a flaccid, cowardly boss in a business suit
forcing a blindfolded worker to carry him on his back.
"I create graffiti as a political act against the whole idea of property
ownership," Eskae is quoted as saying in Michael Walsh's book Graffito.
"Graffiti is a kick in the face to the gallery/museum system, where the
artist is pimped like a whore for the capitalist system, made into another
commodity for people to buy."
Ephraim, a graffiti artist who painted in Santa Cruz under the name Ripe
(as in "the time is ripe") argues that graffiti is intensely political
regardless of the message.
"The very act of an individual projecting their identification into the
public realm is very political," he said. "It's about retaining
individuality in a society that neither condones nor accepts it, that tries
to replace it with a mass corporate identity."
Though property owners and government
officials are frightened enough of graffiti and what it implies to spend
millions of dollars removing it, the corporate advertising industry of
America feels just the opposite. They are eager to spend millions on
graffiti, to own and use it. With its irresistibly attractive style and
status within youth and hip hop culture, advertisers have jumped all over
the graffiti bandwagon to hawk clothing, sports equipment, alcohol, soda,
music and countless other commodities. Ironically, much of graffiti's
advertising use is to sell over-priced goods from huge (mainly white-owned)
companies to the low-income minority kids who started graffiti as a form of
protest against this system in the first place. Ephraim sees this as a
conscious philosophy, and he partially blames co-optation by mass media and
advertisers for the apolitical and self-referential aspects of graffiti.
"There's infighting, scenism and material bias," he says. "Part of that is
because it is attacked by our culture on two fronts, by capitalism
co-opting it and the powers that be trying to squash it. (Co-optation by
advertising) is one of the insidious structures of control that dominant
culture has. It's like white blood cells, taking what attacks them and
trying to transform it into a line of defense, turning it around and making
it part of the system."
Redefining the Political
While the Free Mumia movement may be the most "successful" and widespread
of the overtly political art campaign, plenty of activists and leftists
criticize it for its trendiness, narrow focus and air of white punk
cliquishness. Many political artists say that in this day of mainstream
political apathy and cynicism, more personal and subtle public art has
greater political potential than the lineup of now-commonplace images. They
say "black and red" revolutionary imagery has gotten hackneyed and boring,
and that images of Malcolm X, Emiliano Zapata, Pedro Albizu-Campos, Che
Guevara are so common that they don't even raise an eyebrow, let alone a
dissonant or disruptive idea.
"It's more inspiring when the politics are mixed in with real art, [where]
the political message could be buried on the third layer of meaning," said
Andrew Castrucci, a founder of the New York Bullet Space
squatter-activist-artist organization. "It's very boring to have a
straight-up political message. The more cryptic it is, the more powerful it
Humor and whimsy, as seen in puppet shows and light-hearted demonstrations
going back to the '60s, are also effective weapons. The squatter and
community garden movements in the US and throughout Europe are experts at
pulling off loopy, hilarious occupations and protests. Even before the
anti-globalization movement kicked off, microradio and democratic media
activists were putting puppets and street theater to good use.
"The garden people have done some amazing things with puppets," said
Tobocman. "They give it a less militant tone^If you start playing kazoos,
[they don't] know what to do."
Juan Chavez, a Chicago artist who does both commissioned and guerrilla work
and teaches art to youth, agrees. Though he does work on overtly political
themes including an anonymous anti-police brutality mural, he prefers to
break the status quo and challenge people to think with illegal works which
are unexpected, abstract, and often funny and thought-provoking.
"How many Boricua (Puerto Rican) pride murals do you need?" he asks. "I try
to get the kids to think in new ways, to do things that people haven't done
millions of times before."
In 1999 Chavez and a friend placed a life-sized plaster cast of a homeless
person on Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive, where many homeless people would
survive the freezing winters huddled on heating grates until the city swept
them out and fenced in the grates. The sculpture was soon smashed to bits
and Chavez found it with a rat inside the obliterated hollow shell.
"We don't know if it was a cop or someone who hated homeless people or a
homeless person who thought we were making fun of them," he said. "The
reaction was fitting considering what's been happening to the real homeless
Artistic Dissent Everyday
If Tobocman and the Tompkins Square crowd epitomized the New York political
art scene of the '80s, it may be James de la Vega with his less political
but more personal, subtle, pop-cultural and even spiritual style who
personifies the contemporary movement. A 27-year-old Cornell graduate of
Puerto Rican descent, De la Vega returned to his economically-depressed
Spanish Harlem neighborhood in 1994 to open a studio at 103rd and Lexington
Avenue and proceeded to blanket the surrounding blocks with paint, chalk
and tape collages. He sees his political role as waking people up, and
stirring them from the alienated routine and torpor of the
"Working here I see all these people walking back and forth every day with
their heads down, in a total routine," he says. "My job is to snap them out
of that. You see something that says something about the conditions around
you and it makes you think. It's not in a gallery, it interrupts what
you're doing so you have to deal with it."
In the winter he uses tape to create huge images on the sidewalks and
streets. He does murals of black and Puerto Rican musicians. Though De la
Vega doesn't talk much about religion, he also creates spare, dramatic
masking-tape and paint renditions of the crucifixion and the Last Supper .
One of his masterpieces is a huge version of Picasso's Guernica, which
included a needle in an arm until local residents demanded he paint over
De la Vega is clearly conscious of and engaged with broad political issues,
but prefers to use his art to directly empower his immediate community. He
feels he does this by brightening and decorating the area, and just by
working in what he calls his "fishbowl studio," with a window on the street
inviting people to come in and participate or just talk. It was his
father's dream to be an artist, a dream that was crushed by poverty and
long hours of low-wage labor before his death from AIDS. De la Vega feels
he has transcended those circumstances and fulfilled his father's dream.
His politics are manifest in his desire to inspire and teach other poor
Spanish Harlem kids to do the same.
San Francisco's Susan Green likewise believes that the act of creation and
statement for oppressed people and especially youth, whether in apolitical
graffiti or community murals, is the true political statement. The kids in
her program at the Oakland projects aren't much interested by politics or
the history of struggle. She says they were thoroughly bored by a local
"Huey Newton Historical Tour" led by Bobby Seale himself. Whatever the
subject matter, she says the fact that these kids are doing art is political.
"The powers that be want these kids to go to prison," she said. "They need
them in prison to keep the system going. They would much rather have them
in prison than in college. So the most intensely political act is for them
to be doing something like this that gives them an identity and confidence,
where they get the sense that 'Fuck no, I can do whatever I want.'"
In other words it isn't works of art about oppressed people but rather
oppressed people out there doing art that has potential to change the
system. The wave of art at the protests against the WTO, IMF, DNC, RNC and
plans for more of the same at the protests against the Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA) meetings in Montreal has re-invigorated certain sectors
of protest art, and draws on a long international tradition of artistic
opposition to power and injustice. Murals, posters and street theater can
often inspire, involve and move people in ways that rhetoric simply cannot.
Now it remains to be seen if this resurgence will be integrated into an
ongoing artistic rebellion, if it will foment a creative dialogue, in the
ghettoes, suburbs, universities and financial districts of America and the
world. It also remains to be seen if the "movement," such as it is, can
deepen and strengthen that dialogue while developing an awareness and set
of values coherent enough to insulate it, too, from eventually becoming a
tool for commerce.
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