In these times of rising activism on climate change and other environmental threats, a new band of campaigners has joined the fight: street artists. And these artists are using the landscape, communities and social media to spread their message.
Banksy, probably the most famous street artist in the world, recently made his views clear through a new piece in Wales featuring a boy under what looks like snow, but is actually pollution from an industrial bin.
Banksy has always been overtly political and controversial, but this was a clear environmental message in an area which is home to one of the largest steelworks in Europe. The image was displayed in the news and on social media across the globe.
Through his use of a child, Banksy’s piece echoes the work of another street artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who reached international fame in 2012 with his two street murals little children on a bike and kid on a motorcycle located in the city of George Town, Malaysia.
Like Banksy, Zacharevic’s more recent work was also inspired by environmental pollution. In 2015, a haze of pollution made the air in Malaysia almost unbreathable. Zacharevic’s inquiries led him to learn that that the smoke in the region came all the way from Indonesia, caused by unauthorised slash-and-burn techniques used by smallholder farmers to clear the forest to make room for palm oil plantations.
The Lithuania-born artist began to take an interest in the palm oil industry and researched the issue for two years by engaging with local people in Indonesia.
At the same time, NGO campaigns in the UK and elsewhere in Europe were trying to alert consumers to how the palm oil industry was destroying the environment and abusing human rights. They also began to collaborate with UK investors to engage with the urgent sustainability consequences of deforestation, land conflict and labour conditions, and to advocate for a sustainable palm oil industry.
Zacharevic then partnered with the London-based Sumatra Orangutan Society and Indonesia-based Orangutan Information Centre to form the “Splash and Burn” campaign. Its aim was to make people aware of the social and environmental tensions caused by the current practices in the palm oil industry.
In 2017, he discreetly invited a team of international street artists to join him in Indonesia to produce haunting public art pieces in remote villages, natural landscapes and towns. Famous figures in the street art scene were eager to participate in what they saw as a much needed demonstration of grassroots art activism. Here, for instance, is noted urban sculpturer Mark Jenkins:
Through different creative and sometimes improvised techniques, the street art collective created awareness of the damage caused by unregulated deforestation. Their action was relayed through their Instagram accounts, personal websites, and online press.
Here’s a mural Zacharevic created of an orangutan being chased by fire:
In 2018, Splash and Burn took a turn towards “land art” when Zacharevic and his team drew a giant SOS sign on a 124-acre former palm oil plantation in north Sumatra, Indonesia. The land had just been acquired by the environmentally conscious cosmetics company Lush, which raised funds to replant an indigenous forest. The artists also shot a short movie to raise global awareness and to connect artists with civil society organisations.
Street artists are becoming more and more internationally and officially recognised for their environmental work. In 2018, Hawaiian-born artist Sean Yoro, who goes by the artist name Hula, made the Forbes “30 under 30” list for his murals, mostly of female faces being submerged in water. His works raise the question of rising sea levels due to climate change.
Street art has typically focused on megacities and urban festivals. But a generation of digitally ultra-connected artists has been encouraged to engage with grassroots campaigners and spread their brushes and spray cans elsewhere – to forests and seas – and to creatively question our relationships to the natural world.
Street artists have recently been criticised for “selling out” to big companies for taking on commissioned work, without showing any critical awareness of the social impact of these big companies. Yet these examples of climate activist street art shows artists can actually bring an alternative and responsible message to the public through their work.