Designing a Protest: Occupy DC’s Visual Messages are the He(art) of the Movement

January 28, 2012

Four months after the initial spark of protests, the Occupy movement in the nation’s capital is still very visible: tents remain pitched, donations are collected, protests are organized and the group still garners media coverage. However, local occupiers are creating more than simple media buzz, a trashed park, and traffic jams – they are cultivating a unique culture at the camp, deeply rooted in the art of the movement.

On a recent visit to McPherson Square, I expected to find the park flooded with makeshift tents, trashed signs, and a messy mix of mud, snow, and ice. What I did not expect to find was the unique and colorful abundance of art. An oversized slab of wood adorned in colorful graffiti sits prominently at one entrance to the park. What used to be a traffic sign now displays the Occupy movement’s core message of economic reprieve. Elsewhere, professionally designed posters that depict images and slogans of dissatisfaction hang on tents and tables scattered throughout the park. Structural art is also present, in the form of an igloo-esque plastic bubble on the K Street side of the park and a nearby Tepee that towers over the other shelters.

What may have begun simply as a creative outlet for expressing the various opinions of the protesters is now gaining significant media attention. Arecent article from The Washington Post specifically examines the posters associated with the movement. The article references “strong” images repeated in most protest posters, such as the wrangled bull (which undoubtedly represents “Wall Street”) and the clenched fist, symbolic of the “punk era” of the late 60s and early 70s.

Not all Occupy art is designed to convey a strong or adversarial message. There are plenty of peaceful images, including two posters from the recent Occupy Capitol Hill protest that incorporate a dove and spring. While the aforementioned “strong” images allude to the shared frustrations associated with the movement, these traditionally peaceful images convey a collective hope for a brighter future. 

The fate of the Occupy art is unknown. Some argue that the homemade signs and tents are an eyesore that litters the streets of our city. But historic posters and signs carrying similar persuasive messages of frustration and political agendas (like propaganda posters of World War II) now hang in respected galleries and museums across the world. Similarly, street and graffiti artists are praised in the art world for illustrating social issues through unconventional means of expression.

Even if the art world overlooks the art of Occupy, one thing is certain – protest participants have embraced art as both a vital and inspirational means for expressing their collective beliefs and opinions to the rest of the world.   

- Rachel Nania