In early March 2020, around the time New York City had gotten its first confirmed coronavirus case, artist Arina Voronova had an evangelical impulse. “I wanted to deliver a direct message to people who live in the city and I wanted this message to spread.”
Asian friends of hers, especially those with connections in China, had been telling her that the virus was deadly serious. They said that’s why they’d begun wearing masks in public, for which they’d been sometimes greeted with heckling and derision, even accusations that it was proof they were diseased.
“But it was the opposite,” Voronova said. “My friends were trying to protect themselves by wearing masks and trying to be considerate to others.”
Voronova decided to push back through her art. She took a series of photos of people of all ages, races, and sexual orientations wearing light blue surgical masks. The twist was they were kissing: woman and woman, mother and child, friends of hers and strangers she’d just walked up to on the street — kissing with an almost eerie tenderness that seemed to defy the emergency that was beginning to engulf us.
She turned the photos into posters and stickers, and spent many days and nights putting them up around Manhattan, beginning with a plywood construction fence in Chinatown. Her message might seem obvious now, but it was striking at the time: “We live in a society so we have to wear masks, but we are still connected and can spread kindness,” as she described it recently. In a season of fear, Voronova was urging New Yorkers to keep each other safe without losing their humanity.
She called her project, “The Act of Love.” It would strike a chord and eventually go viral. And it implied another message: that New York’s street artists were going to be venturing out and commenting on the convulsions to come, even as most of us retreated behind closed doors, at least for a while.
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Waves of artistic response washed over the city, addressing different themes as the year progressed. Impassioned calls for justice after the death of George Floyd led to dignified portraits of him and then later to cries of "vote or die." There was a life-sized cartoon of Donald Trump as the grim reaper, holding a scythe and crowing, "Don't be afraid of COVID." Another depiction of Trump showed him with coffins over his eyes. On the other hand, there were buoyant masks drawn as boats on choppy seas, ferrying us to safety. And here and there, like talismans, lionized portraits of Dr. Fauci.
Voronova said that when the city locked down and the streets emptied out, she could wander freely, hanging her art as if downtown was her gallery. But she did wonder who would see it. The answer: internet users around the world. She added a hashtag (#theactoflove) to her kissing photos, opened an Instagram account of the same name and watched her project gain traction. That brought it a burst of media coverage and even more exposure, as fans of the work messaged her asking for posters they could hang in their own hometowns. So she made more and mailed them out.
Sean Corcoran, curator of print and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, knew that pandemic art was likely to be busting out all over, even though he was stuck in his Park Slope apartment and couldn’t roam around to look for it. So he asked for help via the museum’s social media accounts, which asked followers to keep an eye out for COVID-themed murals, stenciled images, and wheat-pasted posters when they ventured out into the wild.
“We went and asked people to submit photos through hashtags,” he said. “And that's what really made us aware of a lot of the different work that was happening.”
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The museum’s campaign helped to reveal that there was more than enough art for an exhibition, which is open now at the museum and called “New York Responds.” Corcoran said the emergence of street art on social media gained even more momentum as the world languished in quarantine, scrolling in search of visual stimulation. “People in Paris could see what was happening on the streets of New York just as easily as I could in Brooklyn.”
Corcoran reached for a real world analogue to this now-familiar online cycle and came up with an example from “the old graffiti days” of the 1970s and 1980s. He said back then, “The train was the social media. It traveled through the city and if you hit a 2 and a 5 train, it went from the Bronx all the way down to the bottom of Brooklyn. That was the world and it traveled through that world and that was the social media of its day.”
Steve Harrington, who runs Brooklyn Street Art with Jamie Rojo, said street art’s bedrock ethic is engagement with the physical city -- of doing your thing pseudonymously and leaving it for passersby to find. Artists alter the urban landscape with their works, which the rest of us register, sometimes subconsciously, as we commute or run errands or just wander around the neighborhood. But it became clear to Harrington early on in the pandemic that something new was happening -- that, “Social media was going to be far more important in spreading the messages of street artists than streets.”
Harrington is not entirely comfortable with the change. He said the highest accolade for an old school tagger was to say they'd gone "all city." It meant their name had gained an aura of ubiquity because they'd slapped it on every lamppost, bus stop, and overpass in the five boroughs — often through feats of stamina and acts of daring.
But Rojo added that those things are illegal — and that, of course, lends them cachet in the eyes of other street artists. “The more walls or trains you hit, the more police you have evaded, the more clout you have within the peer group.” By contrast, social influencers will put up an image once, take a photo, and be done with it. It seems too easy. “Walls are nothing more than showcases for a photograph on their social media account,” Harrington said.
Artist Steve Powers — street name, ESPO — is okay with that. “The internet is really amazing in how it facilitates the wide dissemination of messages,” he said. “But there is really nothing like New York, and getting your art up on an architecturally recognizable spot in New York. People say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that building before.’ Regardless of how the art travels, its origin can’t be discounted.”
Powers is a street guy who has graduated to galleries. Unlike several street artists who declined to be interviewed for this story because they’d prefer not to be noticed by the authorities, he’s happy to talk. His image of a surgical mask as a boat afloat on the sea was part of a multi-panel piece he painted on a boarded-up storefront in SoHo, after early protests of the killing of George Floyd resulted in smashed storefronts in Manhattan and elsewhere. Powers also took a commission with the Daryl Roth Theater to turn its plywood facade into a Black Lives Matter mural. The image rocketed around the internet after he posted it to his Instagram. It was even made into flyers that advertised Black Lives Matter marches held later that summer.
That’s not a surprise to Harrington—he said, whether it’s online or in person, New York’s street art scene “holds a mirror up to the city.”
That purpose is not unique to New York; in fact, said the MCNY's Corcoran, it has worked this way since the heyday of Pompeii. “A lot of the graffiti that was found in Pompeii was political, against the government in ancient Rome,” he said. “It’s long been a way for the people to have their say.”