CAN STREET ART SAVE NATURE?
I’ve been interested in the power of street art for a really long time. Not only a completely free and accessible art form - meaningful pieces can provoke thought and challenge the viewer. In urban settings it’s easy to become detached from wider environmental issues; but effective street art can provide a stark and hard-to-ignore reminder. Encompassing everything from stickers to posters to murals; street art is wonderfully versatile and there are already some incredible nature inspired pieces across the world.
Art by Amok Island & Thomas Jackson
I work with a charity called Butterfly Conservation and every year we run hundreds of public engagement events across the UK. However i’ve noticed they tend to attract the same sort of people - usually those with an existing interest in the environment, who already have a good grasp of the issues facing pollinators. These events are of course extremely important and we should always continue this type of science outreach. But by only having such events, we risk instantly excluding a sector of society who would never even hear about them - perhaps because they don’t move in the same circles or read the same news on Facebook. I’m interested in the power of street art to inspire and translate environmental issues to the masses. I want to reach out to an audience who would definitely never turn up to one of our moth trapping evenings.
Art by Mantra
A while ago I read an interesting article by American street artist Shepard Fairey, explaining the background behind an experiment he performed back in the 80s. He produced an image (the now world famous OBEY giant poster) which he plastered all over Providence, Rhode Island. The image itself was meaningless, but it’s continual appearance provoked strong reactions from the public. Some despised the image as they could not comprehend its meaning; wheres others enjoyed and embraced its presence.
The point is, through the visual arts and a simple picture, Fairey shook up a disengaged city and forced them to question their surroundings. He forced them to be interested and engage with their environment. I think this is what we need
“THE AIM IS TO REAWAKEN A SENSE OF WONDER ABOUT ONE’S ENVIRONMENT - TO STIMULATE CURIOSTY AND BRING PEOPLE TO QUESTION THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR SURROUNDINGS.”
A few months later I was driving to a butterfly conference at Southampton University when I passed this insect mural (below.) It instantly leapt out at me - it was everything I’d been ruminating on since reading the Fairey article. What better way to confront urban dwellers with biodiversity than to paint it on the side of a building so they have to look at it whether they want to or not. I want to see this in every city in the UK - I’m calling it the #WallsforWildlife campaign.
Southampton insect mural
So I’m not trying to recruit you to go out vandalising your local communities… there are successful street art festivals all over the world. We even have an internationally recognised one here in the UK called Nuart. But I want to see a street art festival themed purely around biodiversity - and I want it to be a collaboration between artists and scientists. I also think scientists should be the ones to instigate it, instead of waiting for opportunities to come to us. I envisage our various conservation organisations teaming up with artists to create inspirational, species focused murals
Sometimes science needs to break free of its box. Around 65% of the population are described as being visual learners and data-heavy reports just don’t appeal to a lot of people. Personally I don’t mind whether somebody comes to entomology through an article, or through an awe inspiring piece of artwork. Ultimately, conserving nature will rely on the actions and decisions of the general public, landowners, garden owners, local authorities and many others you may have not yet considered - our communication methods must cater for different types of people.
Art by Jim Vision & Louis Masai
So do I think that art can save nature? Not exactly, but I don’t think science alone can either. Safeguarding our environment is going to demand collaborations between people of all different talents. This will require scientists to think big and be willing to try new things. I regularly get asked why I haven't left my job in science to become a full time artist - as if a person must be one thing or another. The most exciting and interesting things occur at the crossover between different disciplines.
The visual arts are a powerful and underused tool in communicating the story of our environment. Can you identify opportunities in your own workplaces and circles to integrate your science with the arts? Can we have undergraduate biology and art students collaborating on pieces of work? By its very definition art is whatever you want it to be - the opportunities are significant if we are willing to take them.
We are trying to map existing nature themed street art in the UK, as the first stage in our #WallsforWildlife campaign. Have you seen any inspiring pieces which fit the theme? Share the details (city, street name and a photo if your have one!) in the comments section below and we’ll add it for you!