• Barbara Kumari

New York City Street Art and Social Justice

The desires of individuals to pour out their hearts, or at least be noticed, extends back far beyond our current social justice movements. Joseph Kyselak (1799-1831) of Vienna is one credited with being a pioneer of tagged street art and modern grafitti, having accomplished the not-too-small feat of tagging himself throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


One of the first serial Graffiti, by Joseph Kyselak; photo by Robert Lender is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Street art extends back much further in our timeline. Surviving sketches in caves and other mediums can be traced as far back as 13,000 BC. Hunter-gatherer art depictions date back to roughly 7,300 BC. The cave art piece “Cueva de las Manos” (Cave of Hands) in Santa Cruz, Argentina dates back around 5,000 years.


"Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands)" by gorbulas_sandybanks; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Turkish coast was home to large murals and other artforms, especially the area visited by the apostle Paul almost 2,000 years ago. For as long as we can record, humans have spilled out the desires, fear, and ambitions associated with being alive in a world that so often prives both beautiful and tragic.


Fast forward to recent decades and artists reactions to social and political diasporas have hardly changed. As their ancient forefathers sketching out the struggle for existence, artists continue taking to the streets to demonstrate what they see, feel, and imagine in a world where few things feel certain. To understand the wide scope and breadth of modern social justice wars fought in New York City’s street art, however, we need to step back to the 1960s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Darryl McCray, a native of Philadelphia, is widely credited with creating the trend of decorating public spaces with graffiti. McCray, also known as “Cornbread,” was a forerunner in the public art space. McCray took over the “City of Brotherly Love” with messages of inspiration, spurring on generations to follow in his footsteps with paint cans.


"I love Philly" by nattynattyboom is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Today, the tools and mediums have gone above and beyond traditional cans of spray paint. Faces, tags, and social justice movements have come and gone. However, the need to express the deepest longest of the heart and mind in a widespread, tangible way remains. Regardless of one’s views on street art or those who take to the streets armed with color, the question remains: how much effect does street art have on the progress of social justice movements?


NYC Social Justice Warriors


Just as their ancient forefathers, social justice warriors, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, continues to use street art as a vehicle to press towards a more unified, empathetic society which references to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others who have suffered at the hands of police officers using excessive force. Such pieces highlight the desperatio of a society waylaid by militarization of police forces, injustice, and lack of concern for basic human values.


"Take Back New York street art, 1 of 3" by cherbert is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


"Why do White Lives Matter More?" by aestheticsofcrisis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

"American Justice" by aestheticsofcrisis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


New York City’s social justice street art pieces highlight the lackings in society, as well as the yearning for reform. They spill out in painful, beautiful, and startling clarity the necessity for social and political overhauls. Are they achieving their desired aims of shifting the hearts and minds of the masses, however?


Street art celebrated


Street art has come into its own as a social justice vehicle. Once viewed a public nuisance, street art is now recognized as a legitimate art form bolstering the socioeconomic capital of communities. The art form once demonized now serves as a legitimate source of social and financial support for artists around New York City and worldwide. A true sign of the impact of social justice lies in the recent trend of street art commissioning. These artists are now frequently invited to create on buildings, public spaces and in galleries. The future looks bright for street art as a means of propelling social justice. There is little doubt of the power of humans to do what they have done for centuries-to use the primitive desires for love, safety, and prosperity to decorate and shape society. New York City’s street art, once confined to local corners, has taken the world by storm with messages crossing time and space to speak with a voice that will not be silenced!



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