Moving America Forward

How Today’s Street Artists Are Mobilizing Activists

December 12, 2017
How Today’s Street Artists Are Mobilizing Activists
Protest art created by Josh MacPhee (left), Jetsonorama (center) and Shepard Fairey (right). Photos courtesy of Amplifier

Josh MacPhee grew up looking at art. His father was an artist, and the discipline helped him cope with his teenage years in the mid-1980s, when the DIY punk scene was gaining steam in the U.S.

“Some people were in bands, some people did ’zines and some people, like myself, did artwork,” says MacPhee, now a graphic designer and street artist in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I got involved in politics through that independent culture, using my skills to address the issues and communities I felt were important.”

That was more than 25 years ago. In the decades since, graffiti and street art has gone from underground movement to mainstream acceptance — it’s no longer rare for rogue wheat-pasted and spray-painted art to be sold at Christie’s auction houses, for one. Driving this change are artists like MacPhee, who is also a founder of the radical-art distribution project called Justseeds. Their visual representations of hot-button issues like climate change, immigration and civil rights are more in demand than ever.

There’s a long history of using art to make a political statement. Nearly a century ago, the antiwar Dadaists and painters like Diego Rivera, a dedicated Marxist who advocated for workers’ rights, were creating art meant to drive social change. Today that tradition continues, albeit in a different form. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media and the elevated profiles of world-famous street artists like Banksy, it’s easier than ever for artists to reach the public with their images of protest.

It’s also allowed collectives like the Seattle-based Amplifier to hit upon a unique niche: commissioning mission-driven artists to produce works that can be printed, for free, by activists and others agitating for change, both in the U.S. and around the world.

“Hear Our Voice” by Cristyn Hypnar was one of more than 5,000 artworks submitted to Amplifier to support the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.Photo by Cristyn Hypnar, via Amplifier

“I don’t think the world has ever seen an art machine like this: one that does not exist to make money,” says executive director Aaron Huey, who founded Amplifier in 2014. “We turn any money that does come in into more art and awareness. We build campaigns that can and do change the national narrative.”

Huey has friends in high places. He was able to recruit big names like Shepard Fairey — probably best known for his Obama “Hope” poster — and the muralist Mata Ruda to contribute art to campaigns ranging from voting rights to prison reform. Early last year, in the run up to the worldwide Women’s March protests, Amplifier launched a campaign called We The People, placing its artwork in full-page ads in the Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today. The group also distributed more than 30,000 placards, some of which were also designed by Fairey, in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Half a million more people downloaded and printed the posters themselves. Featuring stylized photographs of a diverse group of Americans, the campaign’s goal is to encourage dialogue about national identity and values.

“It’s an opportunity to represent marginalized groups and to get stories out that aren’t always in the mainstream press,” says Chip Thomas, who works under the name Jetsonorama in Arizona. He’s known for wheat-pasting enlarged photos of residents of the Navajo nation, where he also works as a family doctor, onto the sides of buildings, water tanks, grain silos and fences around the reservation. His work was highlighted by Amplifier last spring during the People’s Climate March in D.C. and hundreds of other cities around the world.

“The most I can hope for is that [my work] would stimulate people to see some things differently and not just think about taking action, but actually doing it,” says Thomas.

For MacPhee, whose designs were also featured in Amplifier’s climate-change crusade, the most effective campaigns aren’t the ones tied to large national demonstrations, but rather those targeted to local communities.

“I’m happy Amplifier did what it did with the Women’s March, but I try not to spend my time doing grandiose cultural work,” MacPhee says. “[Change happens] in actual physical places, not on the internet, so it has to connect to people on the ground.”

Artist Josh MacPhee partnered with collective Amplifier to design foam fists for a 2016 protest in New York City.Photo courtesy of Josh MacPhee

Last year, MacPhee partnered with Amplifier to design and distribute oversized foam fists for the New York–based Close Rikers campaign. The props were carried by demonstrators during a series of protests in the city against the massive Rikers Island jail complex.

“They were used over and over again. They just have become a staple of the campaign,” says MacPhee, who will be an artist in residency at Amplifier’s Seattle headquarters in 2018. “One of the things I’ve always wanted — and I think many artists who work in this space want — is to print 20,000 posters and bring them out on palettes to demonstrations and have them disappear. One of the things about Amplifier is that they’ve been able to actualize that.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that MacPhee runs Justseeds and is currently an artist in residence at Amplify and that Amplify started in 2010. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.