The Shape of Art in a Crisis

Erica Ostlander explores graffiti's hidden cultural and emotional depths

Image(s): Esomar Foundation


Art is often a catalyst for emotions which cannot be conveyed through standard modes of communication, making public displays especially powerful, as they reflect the emotional state of society. Graffiti, for example, is a controversial method of expression, as it warrants vandalism and the defacement of private property. The arrest rate for vandalism also spikes during times of political instability, not excluding our current global pandemic. However, whether you search for it or stumble across it randomly in a hidden corner of the city, one can see that stunning displays are being painted everywhere. These are being used to garner support for essential workers in healthcare, who are putting themselves on the frontlines of defence against the virus. They are also bringing attention to the marginalised groups being ignored in this period of economic instability and demanding action from the continuous groups of onlookers. Seeing your personal fears and anguishes being told through someone else’s art is a comforting experience, building unity in a seemingly crumbling community.


Metropolitan areas are currently at a standstill, as the once endless flood of events and creative opportunities has slowed to a near stop, forcing some events into an inorganic online structure. Although there have been many positive discoveries in regards to the adaptability of online showcases, people are still craving a physical display to bear witness to in person. Street art is becoming the rare exception to our online community, a rare opportunity to see the physical existence of our emotions. Graffiti exists outside of the traditional limitations of museums or concerts, so it makes sense that so many people are turning towards it to satisfy their craving for art. Places like London, Paris, Tokyo, and New York are brimming with new murals and apocalyptic style images of people in hazard suits across the city, giving people something to look forward to on their weekly trek to the grocery store. However, this street art explosion is not exclusive to the virus, but is also a tool for the Black Lives Matter movement to encourage engagement in political discourse.


Graffiti stems from the idea of forcing a space for those who feel invisible in a repressive environment, bringing forward the thoughts and strife of those who are forced into silence. This makes it a key detail in the documentation of a crisis, where people can be seen advocating for themselves and their future. When people take photos of this type of art, it can then circulate the web, reaching the eyes of a population even outside an urban area, sending an uncensored message across the globe. Despite the dark side of this artistic medium of attracting crime and economic ruin, there is beauty in how it inspires hope and solidarity in a crisis. Art evolves with people and it is currently undergoing a massive transformation as we move from in-person to online events, but street art is granting us the opportunity to witness the physical embodiment of our emotions and fears without censorship.