What does street art do? Is it protest? Is it a statement? Is it a tool for social change?
The very act of street art seems to fulfil the first of these two functions, leaving aside any actual message in the art. The act of painting on walls is inherently anti-authoritarian, be that toddlers scribbling on the living room walls or painting the Berlin Wall. When the subject of the art combines this anti-authoritarianism with a distinct social or political message, street art can become a vivid call for change.
Louis Masai Michel’s Save the Bees project is just such a work.
The street art series consists of Michel painting bees on walls. That’s it. OK, I lie, sometimes the bees have placards. And there is a hashtag: #SaveTheBees.
The Save the Bees works are in essence a call for humanity to look after the bee population. Michel began the series after painting endangered animals in South Africa and learning about the real threat to the bee population in Europe and North America. As bees play a vital role in our ecosystem, the death of bees is not just a natural tragedy, it presents a potential threat to the continuation of human life as we know it- yes, yes I know it sounds hyperbolic. Watch the video below if you need convincing.
The (painted) bees can now be found across Bristol, Devon, Glastonbury, Croatia, Miami, New Orleans and New York.
A large part of the danger that bees face comes from industrialised agriculture and so part of the target of the change that is implicit in Michel’s work is a call for a change in our modern lifestyles that take heedlessly from nature. To make the inevitable comparison, it is this environmentalist call in Michel’s work that is different to what Banksy and other street artists of his ilk do.
In Banksy’s work, the call for change tends to be for a change to social structures that directly impact upon other humans- police corruption, global inequality, unjust war. In Michel’s work the urban environment, the product of the industrialism that is destroying the population of bees is used to fight against itself. Urban walls become a canvas for a message against a feature of the wider industrialism that they so often embody.
Michel’s work is clever. It looks good too. The point of the street art though is not to get lost in the cleverness or how pretty it is. The works fails in their purpose if we end up just thinking about them and not acting on their call for change.