When urban spaces become the medium for expression, protest, criticism, and defiance, the audience is limitless. Pedestrians and bystanders of all ages and ideologies become spectators of demonstrations that walk the line between art and activism and transform the city's streets, walls, and sidewalks into canvases for diffusing ideas on a massive scale. Banksy once said that "a wall is a very big weapon. It's one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with." This call to arms has rung true for many as they take to the streets in a bid to make themselves heard.
Using everything from graffiti, paint, stenciling, posters, and video projectors, artists, activists, and protesters have utilized art as a tool of sociopolitical expression since the beginning of time and in turn have transformed cities into broadcast centers in a bid to get their message out. In the process, parks, billboards, and buildings become spaces for civilian expression.
The rise of urban art as a means for social commentary can be traced back to the aerosol boom, a movement that, literally, started making its mark on urban centers in the late 1980s. This gave rise to a generation of artists who, inspired by social discontent, took to the streets and, through tagging, aired their thoughts on politics, morality, and justice. One of the poster children for this movement was Banksy who, through their work like PARKING (2010), demonstrated the power of an image in relaying a message. In it, a simple play on words that transformed a parking lot into a playground.
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Words on the Street: Art, Architecture, and the Public Protest
During the mass protests in Chile towards the end of 2019, students of architecture gave a new meaning to art as a form of protest, calling out the injustices of the real estate industry and advocating for access to decent housing. Using a 1:1 drawing painted on the ground in Plaza Italia, they not only illustrated the 17m² apartments being sold at exorbitant rates —one of the many challenges faced by Chileans who are looking to buy homes— they were also able to spread their message to a wider audience by using the plaza as their broadcast space.
From the Greek agora to the Roman forum, men and women have come together to debate, discuss, and share their ideas.
Even though these practices have waned with the passage of time, public spaces have remained as centers of exchange and protest and, joining together with artistic tools and movements, have become canvases for protest and social discourse.