Images and art play essential roles in social justice. Activists and artists alike use their creativity to depict history and express the emotional power of a movement. Because of their accessibility, murals are a uniquely effective social justice tool. They aren’t locked behind museum glass or auctioned off to wealthy patrons. As street art, murals are for the people. Here are ten social justice murals found around the world:
Based in Kabul, the ArtLords organization has blended art and activism for years. Since 2014, they’ve painted over 1,700 murals in 21 provinces. One of their first installations – “We Are Watching You” – depicted a pair of eyes. The text reads: “Corruption is not hidden from God and the people’s gaze.” After the Taliban retook power, the ArtLord’s co-founder Omaid Sharifi fled in fear of his life. The ArtLords murals are being painted over and replaced by Taliban propaganda. In a France24 article, Sharifi declares: “We will never stay silent.”
Ruth First, a white investigative journalist, was deeply involved in the fight to end apartheid. Her journalism exposed many of the abuses of the era. She was detained a handful of times, censored, and put on trial for treason. While in exile, she wrote memoirs and was eventually killed in 1982 by a bomb sent by South African police. British artist Ben Slow painted this mural at the request of Shafiur Rahman, a filmmaker.
Belfast, Ireland is famous for its social justice murals. The city has a history of conflict, most notably between Irish nationalists (most of whom were Catholic) and British loyalists (most of whom were Protestant). Known as “The Troubles,” this violent time still resonates through the area. On Falls Road, you can see walls covered in murals painted by Irish people expressing themselves. One promotes the use of the Gaelic language, which was a point of contention in the culture wars, while others show images of figures like Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. Jr. The Civil Rights Movement in America inspired many in Ireland, which is why MLK’s image and quotes from that time are so prevalent in the murals.
The world’s largest outdoor gallery is the East Side Gallery, which also happens to be the longest-standing section of the Berlin Wall. More than 100 murals decorate its surface. One mural called “Vaterland,” which translates to “Fatherland,” shows parts of the Israeli flag placed over the German flag. Artist Günther Schaefer painted it in 1990 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Another Berlin mural, this one (translated to “Thank you, Andrei Sakharov”) honors a Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights activist. After working on thermonuclear weapons for the Soviet Union, Sakharov advocated for social justice and reform. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and died in 1989, a few weeks after the Berlin wall came down.
In 2011, this hot spot for unsanctioned graffiti art was approved as an area of municipal significance. StreetARToronto now provides funding and approval for public murals. In 2020, over 40 artists collaborated on #paintthecityblack, a project in honor of George Floyd. The artists painted several murals in Graffiti Alley featuring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Canadian woman whose police-involved death triggered protests in the summer of 2020.
In 2018, the “Off the Wall” project sought to bring attention to the city’s social justice history. Artist Muhammad Yugani contributed four murals to the project, including “We Shall Always March Ahead.” It depicts Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, Ralph David Aberthany Jr, John Lewis, and Hosea Williams. They stand arm-in-arm, a colorful cityscape behind them.
In 2011, a 17-year old Felipe Becerra was painting graffiti under a bridge. Police apprehended him. Afraid, the teenager tried to run, but an officer shot him in the back. An investigation and trial revealed that the police lied about Becerra carrying a firearm and being a wanted criminal. The officer who killed him escaped custody and was only recently recaptured in August 2021. Every year, local graffiti artists paint murals at the bridge where Becerra died.
In 2019, the International Labour Organization partnered with Street Art for Mankind on five social justice murals around the United Nations Headquarters. They addressed the ILO’s goals of a better work future and covered themes like green jobs, gender equality, child labor, and so on. The artists represented 10 nationalities and different styles.
At the National Palace in Mexico City, you can find a series of murals painted by iconic artist Diego Rivera. The work takes up three walls. It tells the history of Mexico, featuring images like an eagle, an Aztec calendar stone, and important historical figures. Everything from the Spanish conquest to the Mexican Revolution to a hopeful future where workers’ rights are respected is depicted. Because of the mural’s non-linear structure, viewers can see it from any angle.