Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Covid-19 street art, volume 1

Covid-19 might have led to physical distancing but, as many have observed, the need for social communication and organisation has never been more apparent. In  this post I am focusing on one aspect of that - public expressions relating to the pandemic as seen on the streets of SE London (examples mainly from Brockley/New Cross/Nunhead area unless otherwise stated). There is a wave of spontaneous street/folk art bubbling up in windows, pavements, hoardings and many other places.

The first wave of creativity accompanied the launch of community self-help/mutual aid. The first public sign of this was the launch of the Lewisham Covid 19 Mutual Aid facebook group on March 12th, a good ten days before the Government implemented a lockdown. Soon flyers were dropping through letterboxes and posters going up all over the place, as people set up local groups at neighbourhood and street level. Today there are well established networks in most areas, there is lots of informal checking in on neighbours and co-ordinated responses to requests to pick up shopping and medicines, along with more ambitious efforts such as delivering food parcels to those who need it most (such as the scheme being run from Telegraph Hill area). If in some streets there hasn't been much need to go beyond setting up a whatsapp group, it is good to know that the support is there when required. Here's a couple of early examples of leaflets, from Telegraph Hill and Brockley respectively (click to enlarge).

'If you're self isolating you are not alone' (Telegraph Hill leaflet) 

'Need the support of your community during Covid-19? We can help' (Brockley leaflet)
The key visual image of pandemic street art has been the children's painting of a rainbow, displayed in a window as a general expression of hope. This seems to have started in Italy and spread internationally.

Some people have taken the rainbow on to another level - here's a balloon arch from Waller Road SE14:

Another international trend has been the bear hunt - strategically placed teddy bears for children to spot when they are out and about with their parents during their exercise stroll. This bear is giving thanks not to just emergency services but to food producers, shop workers, delivery people and... cats:

In Britain over the last couple of weeks the rainbow has merged  with another key trope - support for people working in the National Health Service. Here's some chalked examples:

Ravensbourne Park
Ivydale Road
'thank you NHS & Key workers - stay safe' (Ivydale Road)

NHS on Gellatly Road, opposite Skehans pub
 Elsewhere there have been banners, like this one:
'Thank you NHS' - Frendsbury Gardens, Honor Oak Estate (detail below)

Rushey Green - 'Care for each other'
The 'Trees on the Green' sculptures at Rushey Green have been decorated with pictures from children and staff at St John Baptist Primary School in Catford.

Similar sentiments have been expressed in street art pieces like these:

'We are blessed to have the NHS' - Geoffrey Road, SE4 (by Harry Blackmore)

NHS superhero, Hilly Fields
These graphic outpourings of support for NHS workers have been matched by public cheering on Thursday nights at 8 pm (for three consecutive weeks so far). In many places people have been clapping and generally making noise from their doors and windows. On my street in SE14 it has got busier and noisier over the three weeks, with banging of saucepans and even a couple of trumpets. It is both a gesture of solidarity and an affirmation of community, the only time in the week when we get to see our neighbours in any numbers.

I've seen some remarks online to the effect that what frontline workers in the health service need is better pay, more funding and Personal Protective Equipment, rather than cheers. But these need not be mutually exclusive. What is being shown appreciation on Thursday nights is not the limitations of the top down, under-resourced NHS with its various hierarchies and bureaucracies but the value of care and the principle that it must be there for all regardless of wealth. And of course respect for those shouldering the risk of providing this while many of us stay at home (not that this is limited to the NHS, let's not forgot teachers, social workers, care home staff etc.).

Many other people are having to travel to work and mix with colleagues because their employers have rather dubiously classed their work as essential. The reluctance of some companies to prioritise the health of their staff and customers by closing was highlighted at Wetherspoons pub chain, before they were forced to close by lockdown restrictions. This sticker from staff at the Brockley Barge highlighted their campaign for 'real sick pay now':

'Living wage for Brockley Barge staff'
Now with so many places closed we have become familiar with notices on doors explaining their position. This one is from the Old Nun's Head pub looking forward to reopening when 'this absolute bastard of  a virus has finally buggered off':

If ordinary politics seems to have been temporarily put on hold, it will no doubt return. A global pandemic affecting people everywhere might open the way for planetary humanist responses,  but equally it could be the precursor to a climate of blame in which various 'others' are held responsible. There are questions about what labour gets valued, how health and care services are resourced, what kind of 'normality' do we want to go back to? There has been some political graffiti locally but there will be a lot more political debate and controversy to come. 

'Pandemic to class war - don't trust Boris' - Lewisham town centre

'Covid futurism - economy of care - universal basic income - bury capital'
(the closed Black Horse and Harrow pub in Catford - most recently 'The Ninth Life')
And of course once again we are thankful for the success of our fight to stop the Government from closing Lewisham Hospital. The fallacy of reducing hospital services to a bare minimum with no capacity to respond to surges in illness has surely been exposed once and for all. Lives are being saved today at Lewisham as a result of the thousands who marched and campaigned back in 2013.

'Save Lewisham Hospital' campaign thanking NHS staff last month and
 calling for 'personal protection equipment for them now'
A message from some Lewisham staff - 'I stayed at work for you. Please stay at home for me!'