Art as Social Justice

Urban Art Mapping
A tribute to Breonna Taylor by Face Me Por Favor near 38th and Chicago. (Heather Shirey)

The iconic George Floyd mural resides on the intersection of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. Floyd is engulfed in hues of blue, orange and yellow with reddish undertones. Behind him, in white lettering, are the names of people wrongfully murdered by law enforcement officers. 

The mural was photographed and archived by the Urban Art Mapping Research Project. The project was founded by St. Thomas professors Todd Lawrence, Heather Shirey and Paul Lorah. It is part of an initiative started by the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas.  

Two years ago, Lawrence, Shirey and Lorah, alongside St. Thomas students and in partnership with The Midway Murals Project, began documenting street art around Midway, a residential neighborhood in St. Paul.  

Shirey, an art history professor, has been involved with street art for years.  

 “I felt like street art expresses something that we don’t see in our museums,” she said. “It expresses the voice and experiences of people who are often marginalized from institutionalized presentations of art.”  

Floyd’s murder sparked a movement of street art in the Twin Cities and around the world. In response to the eruption of street art and racial injustice, the Urban Art Mapping Research Project created the George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art Database. It allows people to upload and access art that illustrates the racial disparities within their communities.  

The Urban Art Mapping Project captures art addressing Floyd’s murder and the ongoing movement of demanding social justice and equality.  

“The work we’re doing with the art is not just because it’s a research project,” Shirey said. “It feels like it can be active in some way and play a part in helping solve some of the problems.” 

In the past months, people have expressed themselves through protests, food drives and prayer circles. Documenting protest art has become Lawrence’s form of expression.  

“Through these photos and through talking about it, I’m thinking about George Floyd every day. I’m thinking about the uprising and people’s pain and anger and everything that goes along with that every day,” he said. 

More than 1,000 images of art have been uploaded to the database, the majority of which were submitted by the public. The Urban Mapping Project is staffed with three professors and five students, as well as a handful of volunteers who help with data entry. However, Minnesota locals have begun to document street art themselves. 

Through the process of documenting street art, Lawrence, Shirey and Lorah have illustrated the importance of preserving history and hardship we face as a society. Street art is untethered, belonging to anyone who views it. Due to George Floyd and the Anti-Racist Street Art Database, fresh paint, bleach or spray paint will not diminish the significance behind the art itself.