Street art confronts the pandemic

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Street art confronts the pandemic
Pobel's “The Lovers,” a mural of a young couple wearing bright blue face masks.

by Charu Suri

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Street art is the ultimate visual source of social commentary and the pandemic has lit a fire under the feet of muralists around the world.

Some works are humorous, even playful, like those done by the San Francisco-based artist Fnnch, whose paste-up images include his signature honey bears wearing face masks, and bright blue soap-dispenser bears, encouraging people to wash their hands. They can be found all over the city, in neighborhoods like Inner Richmond and Cow Hollow, on sidewalks and mailboxes.

Other artists’ works are more serious, highlighting, for example, the importance of health care workers.

From Norway to Colorado, here are some places where COVID-19-inspired street art has cropped up.

In March, the artist Pobel returned to his home in Norway after traveling in the Peruvian jungle and found a mandatory lockdown. He was struck by people wearing masks, he said.

That’s how the idea for “The Lovers,” a mural of a young couple wearing bright blue face masks, was born. He spray-painted the image on a concrete wall on the main road in Bryne, after making a stencil drawing on cardboard.

“There’s a beautiful lamp above it, so at nighttime, it really lights up,” he said. His inspiration stemmed from hope. “Even though everyone has gone through struggles and hard times, there is still heart and love and compassion,” he said.

In Bergen, the street artist Pyritt painted a woman clad in a traditional Norwegian costume called a bunad, wearing a gold face mask. He named it “May 2020,” a nod to the country’s May 17 Constitution Day, which is celebrated with parades and has not been canceled since World War II. “A bunad is a very important part of the collective self-image,” said Christer Holm, who represents the artist, noting that this year there is a high probability that the celebrations won’t happen.

Pyritt has since painted another mural on April 19 called “Contagious,” an image of a girl kissing a bottle of Corona beer.

AFK, another Bergen-based artist, did a nostalgic paste-up called “Hug the World” on a wall under a city bridge: Two girls hug the Earth bathed in a pink hue. Near the painting, the artist wrote: “When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where the power is.”

On April 10, the Denver-based artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler painted an arresting, multicolored “Healthcare Hero” mural on the wall of an abandoned building on Colfax Avenue. The mural shows a winged health care worker wearing a face mask and a pair of red boxing gloves.

The mural, which took fewer than 10 hours to paint, “has resonated with the health care community,” said the artist, who added that he’s seen many medical professionals taking photos in front of it. He used a mixture of spray and acrylic paints, including Seurat-like pointillistic dots throughout.

Gov. Jared Polis enacted a stay-at-home order in Denver on March 26, and Zucchini-Fowler said he wanted to be proactive in his community during this period of social distancing.

“The participation from the community was really great, both the process of making it and the interaction (from passersby),” he said. Since then, he’s started selling prints of his work for $30, donating a print to a different hospital around the United States for every 10 sold, and has plans for more coronavirus-inspired street art around the city.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina
After a visit to his local supermarket on March 12, the Charlotte-based artist Darion Fleming realized that there would soon be no sanitizers anywhere: a thought that inspired his work “Pure’ll Gold.” “I thought it would be a funny idea to see gold spilling out of a Purell bottle,” he said, and added the words “Available Nowhere” on the bottle.

He painted the mural on a quiet residential building on North Davidson Street. It took him eight 10-hour days to finish it. “This wasn’t a commissioned piece, and everything was on my dime because I wanted to do something for the community to enjoy in serious times,” he said, adding that the project cost him around $500.

Since then, he has more than doubled the number of his Instagram followers and turned the area into a buzzworthy spot. “It could be around for a very long time, or when all of this blows up, I might cover it up and paint something else. That’s the cool thing about public art, nothing’s really permanent,” he said.

Berlin-based artist Eme Freethinker wanted to make a statement about greed during the crisis. “I was thinking about what I should paint all night, and was laughing a lot about it, and in the morning I told my son that I was going to paint Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” with a toilet paper roll, with the words ‘Mein Schatz’ (‘My Precious’),” he said.

The original mural in Mauerpark (a public park in the Prenzlauer Berg district) was painted on March 19, but has since been covered with artwork by others.

He has painted several more, including his latest, Gollum and Scrat, the squirrel from the movie “Ice Age,” who has now nabbed the toilet paper roll. While the works have attracted a lot of attention, he doesn’t know how many more virus-themed paintings he will create in the future, noting that he doesn’t want to exploit the theme too much.

The Mexican American artist Mauricio Ramirez splits his time between Chicago and Milwaukee, where his family lives, and has been painting murals since he was 16.

“My news feed was filled with COVID-19 and I just got sick of it,” he said. He had the desire to create something positive for health care workers. “I just wanted to let them know they’re appreciated.”

He chose a mixed-used building with a pristine masonry brick facade in the residential neighborhood Lincoln Village as the canvas for his 15-foot tall, 30-foot-wide work, “Frontline Heroes.” “The building is across the street from a basilica in an area that looks a little bit like Rome, and some of my family members have been baptized there,” he said.

The striking mural with geometric waves shows a nurse wearing a mask in a prayerlike pose, with the colors of the Puerto Rican and Mexican flags in the background. Ramirez started the mural on April 9, finished it in two days, and said that everyone on his Instagram post has been tagging a health care worker.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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