What is Social Justice Art?

Social Justice Street Art

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The artist is known for recording human history, shaping our culture, cultivating our imaginations and expressing views related to our social and historical institutions.  With the fabric of society stretching and the need for criminal justice reform, many artists have shifted their work to include political themes such as civil rights, racial justice, and law enforcement reform.  This kind of art is most often found on the streets in urban areas in the form of social justice murals and street art.  

Walls of Justice was founded to support the peaceful artistic movement of social justice and encourage actions to bring about positive change and reforms in our communities.

What Defines Social Justice Art?

Social justice art can be any expression of work related to public policy, racial inequity, injustice, human rights, or any other theme related to the oppression of a group of people.  This art not only includes street artists’ murals, but can include paintings, sculptures, film, theater, dance, music, written and spoken word, drawings, and digital graphics.  Walls of Justice brings together the now of the digital age and the real time physical pieces that are created around the world connecting artists, activists, and social media.

Social justice art is a form of artistic expression with a purpose.  It serves as an outpouring of emotion reflecting how the community is feeling.  These expressions often create a visual catalyst to engage community members in a conversation or encourage them to take certain action around the theme portrayed in the work of art. This type of art can be found anywhere.  The streets and corners can serve as the canvas.  Artists can express themselves through any medium.  They are only bound by their own limits of imagination.  Social justice art aims to raise awareness and the critical consciousness to build and rally communities to come together and work to create positive reforms and a more just tomorrow for all people.

Using artistic expression in the community allows social justice artists to become activists connecting with the public to build momentum for a cause.  The emotional connection brings the artists and people experiencing it together, helping facilitate change. The ultimate goal is to see these changes come to fruition in communities and around the world leading to positive cultural and social institutional reform.

History of Social Justice

Social justice works of art exist throughout history to question certain social institutions and oppressive behaviors at the government level.  It is a means of expressing how the public is resistant and how to raise their voices peacefully for reform.  However, social justice art was brought into prominence in the United States with two major movements, The Black Arts Movement and the Chicano Movement.

The Black Arts Movement had a significant influence on the popularity of social justice art.  This movement emerged in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement when poet Amiri Baraka established the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem as a place for artistic expression. The goal of this movement was to support African Americans and their fight for equality and justice, while mobilizing communities to demand social change.  James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Gil Scott-Heron, and Thelonious Monk were significant in spearheading this movement.  On the west coast, graphic artist Emory Douglas’s talents were used by the Black Panther Party to promote the Black Power Movement and illustrate the BPP’s community services and demands for decent housing.  Works in poetry, literature, music, and visual arts increased, demanding social justice and actions to be taken for the black communities improving better living standards and equal rights under the law.

The Chicano Movement saw works of art created that focused on incorporating sentiment from the previous Mexican Revolution, while also bringing attention to current Mexican-American social, cultural, and political issues in the United States.  Diego Rivera, known for his social realism, was the biggest influence on the Chicano Movement with his work as a mural artist.  David Alfaro Siqueiros painted murals featuring social and political subjects using a restrained color palette, shadows, and a powerful perspective to invoke a deep emotional response to his work.   Another Mexican painter, José Clemente Orozco, specialized in political murals often depicting human suffering and promoting the causes of workers and the poor.

Other movements worth noting that influenced the popularization of social justice art in the United States include the feminist movement, the AIDS epidemic, and the LGBTQ+ movement.  The most memorable, Rosie the Riveter posters, became an iconic image of the feminist movement.  The AIDS Memorial quilt is a 48,000-panel work of art commemorating people who have died of the disease.  Quilt founder and gay rights activist Cleve Jones says, “The Quilt has become a powerful educator and symbol for social justice.”  The Pink Triangle is a park and memorial in San Francisco memorializing the estimated 15,000 LGBTQ people killed during the Nazi regime and serves to remind us of the injustice that was done to these innocent lives.  These pieces allow public reflection and healing.  They touch the heart and soul, reminding us to stay active and speak out. 

Public murals and street art have become the most popular social justice art forms, allowing the creator to connect with the public depicting issues and stereotypes and challenging social and political institutions.

Modern Examples

As more artists and activists are connecting with others through social media, digital accessibility has brought about an increasing number of works by artists to address the challenges that communities face today. Street art and murals focusing on positive change can be found across the globe and will have a place in art history as a means of creating a better tomorrow. The current focus seems to have shifted toward the Black Lives Matter Movement, immigration, criminal justice reform, and memorials to celebrate the lives cut short by law enforcement, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. In the San Francisco Bay area, several social justice art collectives have formed and are growing to promote community activism and the push to legislate reform. In modern times, society is able to connect digitally to a global community and Walls of Justice documents and records the peaceful demonstrations worldwide. See some modern-day examples below.

Respect & Protect by @smart_spf. Photo: @jspeazywithbeans
Breathe as seen in Oakland, Ca. Artist: @creativeshields
Seize the Time by @fotoflaneause, @aerosoul_ig

Social justice art is one of the most significant forms of expression in modern society.  Since the rise to prominence with the Black Arts Movement and the Chicano Movement, social justice art has grown in its ability to capture our attention and the social consciousness.  Our mission at Walls of Justice is to grow a digital community to spread the message of positive change and create a digital library of social justice art. Have a photo of social justice art? Submit it here.

Submit Your Photos

Walls of Justice encourages you to submit photos of art in your community. By submitting your photos, you grant us permission to use the photography on this website and you agree to the Terms of Use and Submission Guidelines.

This site was created, and is maintained by, Walls of Justice LLC.
Max file size 10MB.
Upload failed. Max size for files is 10 MB.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.