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Preserving protest art before it gets washed away

Memorial site at the location where Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop near the intersection of 63rd and Kathrene Drive in Brooklyn Center. This photograph shows the memorial as it appeared a week after Wright's death.Heather Shirey

Street art is a continuous conversation between artists and their environment. Paint is sprayed, the erased, then painted over again — but in the past year, researchers and students at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis have been working to document this art form.

Today, their George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database, a year-old crowdsourced collection of street art built since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last June, has more than 2,100 entries. The more incendiary the piece is (to the government, the police, or to white people) the faster it’s taken down, say the researchers. The database acts as a way to memorialize the movement — even the quick swipes of graffiti on the sides of closed buildings.


“Right after George Floyd was murdered, I saw this simple piece on the side of an old shut down Walmart building that just said, ‘Mama,’” said Heather Shirley, co-organizer and professor of art history at the University of St Thomas. “It was so powerful and I knew it would get cleaned up really, really quickly.”

"MAMA" spray painted on the side of an old Walmart.Heather Shirey

So she snapped a photo, tagged the location and added it to the database.

Massachusetts has a few street art entries in the database — graffiti reading, “if my job was beating peaceful protestors I would resign” was photographed and uploaded by @radicalgraffiti on Instagram; two black-and-white stickers in Provincetown depicting two men kissing and the words “good night white pride,” were taken in Provincetown and published by @homoriot on Instagram.

Massachusetts, Boston in particular, has always had a large street art presence. Long before the database and before George Floyd’s murder, it has been used as a method of protest and healing, said Percy Fortini-Wright, a Boston-based street artist.

“It’s beautiful to see things being preserved online,” said Fortini-Wright. “Graffiti has always been anti-establishment media. It’s a tool to get the message directly out to the people, which is what I love about it.”


There are pitfalls to graffiti and other forms of street art being published online. For one, not all forms of graffiti are legal. Posting images could lead to creatives encountering law enforcement, said Fortini-Wright. Also, a lot of creatives don’t get paid for their work — not even when it gains traction online, said Fortini-Wright.

But responding to a moment is what street art is all about. Preserving that response is a worthwhile pursuit he said.

“When I die, what I created and what messages I was trying to portray with my work or whatnot are what lives on,” said Fortini-Wright. “That’s why I was so psyched to see all these murals popping up [after Floyd’s murder].”

For the researchers at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, this isn’t their first time preserving street art online. Before the pandemic, Shirley and fellow professors Todd Lawrence and Paul Lorah were cataloguing local street art in the Twin Cities. Their interviews with artists, residents, and activists followed each photo. But when quarantining forced them to stay off the streets, they turned to crowdsourcing; first with their COVID-19 street art map, then with their anti-racist work. They want the projects to serve as a free resource for scholars and artists.

With submissions from all over the country, and a few overseas, their platform grows daily. Reasons for protest have continued since George Floyd’s murder, and the database now contains works spurred by the murders of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta, and the police shooting of Daunte Wright, in Brooklyn Center, Minn., in April.


“We are interested in everything — we’re interested in those small pieces which are very ephemeral and will be gone tomorrow,” said Lawrence. “We want this to last for a long time.”

To view art in the database or log a piece you’ve photographed, visit https://georgefloydstreetart.omeka.net.

Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at natachi.onwuamaegbu@globe.com.