Social movements use protest art to make change happen. See how everything from hand-drawn posters to large-scale art installments play a role in today’s protests.

Updated June 2020

In early 2020, based on an analysis of Shutterstock search data, we saw that Protest Art was developing as a stand-out visual trend for 2020. With searches for inequality icons up 465 percent and a 70 percent increase in searches for environmentalism, it was clear that Shutterstock users are looking for images that both represent and inspire change. That was in January. Now, around 2020’s halfway mark, we see searches increasing for images and illustrations related to the Black Lives Matter movement. From an ongoing global pandemic to a mounting demand for social justice, the stories of 2020 have been illustrated along the way with art that helps us understand — and calls for — momentous changes.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Demonstrators at a Rally for George Floyd
Demonstrators unfurl a banner featuring George Floyd at a protest against police brutality in Pittsburgh, USA, in May 2020. Image via Keith Srakocic.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum in the US and worldwide, we’ve seen protest art, in its many forms, helping activists express and expand their message globally. Traditional protest signs have joined forces with large-scale artistic demonstrations to send a clear and immovable message: Black Lives Matter.

Meanwhile, many are still grappling with the visual language of protest on social media. Responses on Instagram and Facebook have sparked a conversation about how to (and how not to) take action and express solidarity — digitally.

Much of this protest art might look ad-hoc, but behind the scenes, proactive designers are striving to create a visual language that helps to distinguish and highlight the causes of groups like Black Lives Matter. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Protesters Making Signs
Protesters work on signs during a march against police brutality and racism in Washington DC, June 2020. Image via Shutterstock.

Here, we’ll look at the landscape of protest art today, including how the line between commercial brand and protest symbols are starting to blur, and how the art world and social media are reshaping the face of activism now. 

What Is Protest Art?

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Signs Displayed During the Trump Impeachment Hearings
Signage at the Trump Impeachment hearings in Washington, USA, in February 2020. Image via Jose Luis Magana.

Protest art refers to a wide range of visual media that helps to promote activism and inspire social and political change. Protest art, as a whole, can be split roughly into three broad categories, which often overlap and influence each other:

  • Art produced for demonstrations, such as posters, billboards, costumes, and performance art.
  • Campaign art created by groups looking to raise awareness of a particular issue, and circulated in print or online. 
  • Artworks created by protest artists, which are displayed in galleries, online, or in the outside world.
Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Street Performance Performed by Demonstrators
Performance troupe Red Collective perform at the Extinction Rebellion demonstration in London, in April 2019. Image via John Gomez.

Because protest art is anti-establishment, it follows different rules and norms compared to mainstream art and commercial advertising. As a result, protest art has a fluidity that means traditionally-taboo or marginalized media, such as graffiti, vandalism (see Bushfire Brandalism below), street performance, or inexpensively produced zines, have the potential to function as protest art.   

The Visual Identities of Social Movements

“In a very short time, we have seen this trend go from taboo to mainstream. Political movements aren’t just for our grandparents anymore. Women and children are educating themselves and taking action. What we need to see happen in this trend is a strong visual representation of marginalized communities across all mediums.”

– Monique VanAssche-Dermer, Principal and Creative Director at Mad Studio

Historically, the emphasis of protest art has been on the ad-hoc. Demonstrators needed to be able to easily and cheaply produce their own protest posters and signs, giving protest art its characteristic rough-and-ready character. 

In recent decades, access to social media and online blogs has given protest art much wider-reaching visibility and potential impact. A demonstration is no longer limited to the city in which it takes place, but can be watched by millions of people around the globe.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Social Media Changing the Scope of Awareness
Social media increased the reach and impact of protest movements the world over. Image via Paapaya.

This enlarged scope has meant that activist groups can attract more participants and empathizers, which is especially promising for minority groups who don’t have the funding of big players like Greenpeace or PETA. However, it also means that activist groups have to compete with thousands of other collectives for media attention and Facebook shares.

“I believe that we are getting more serious about the real impact that companies have on us, as a society. We started pushing brands to make a statement about their core values and beliefs, and now, we want to take an extra step to guarantee that those statements also mean something in concrete in their business.”

– Esther Sá, Global Business Marketing and Creative, Brazil

Companies mimicking activists — and activists mimicking companies? Today, in the age of social media and transparency, this no longer seems like a foreign concept. 

In recent years, we’ve been seeing a move towards more defined visual identities among protest groups, with collectives like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) actively commissioning designers to create more unified “brand” identities, including logos, typography, and color schemes. While the concept of branding might seem in contradiction with the anti-commercial nature of protest groups, the increasing visibility of and competition between groups online means that visual identities have quickly become a common feature of protest organizations. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Black Lives Matter Uses a Free-Use Font and Distinctive Color Scheme
A Black Lives Matter demonstrator waves a flag on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during the Bloody Sunday commemoration in Selma, USA, Mar. 3, 2019. Image via Julie Bennett.

Black Lives Matter has experimented with creating a visual identity that extends to a logo, color palette, and typography. Created by independent design agency Design Action Collective, the movement’s identity uses the typeface Anton, a freely downloadable font that is set in all-caps against a yellow background. The simple layout and freely accessibly font were extremely conscious choices — it was important to the designers and to the movement that the logo (or word mark, technically) be easy to recreate digitally, and by hand, so that supporters everywhere can channel the message.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Extinction Rebellion's Logo is Freely Distributed to Protesters
An Extinction Rebellion protest in London, in October 2019. Image via Amer Ghazzal.

Extinction Rebellion used graphic designer Clive Russell to create their distinctive cross-and-circle logo. Supporters are actively encouraged to create their own unique protest materials from a resource pack that is freely available online. Russell intended the design to behave as a unifying and inclusive symbol for the group, which could be used and interpreted by all, rather than as a commodified logo.

Graphic designer Josh Warren-White notes that the typeface is “bold, strong, militant, and carries strength and tone,” while emphasizing that the main goal of the identity was to make it “easily replicable” by individuals who may not have the budget to use professional printers. 

While some groups have tried to hone sleeker identities, others, such as Youth Climate Strike, opt to stick with traditional interpretations of protest art, with hand-drawn signage and painted type for the backdrop to demonstrations. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Hand-Drawn Protest Art by Youth Climate Strike
Youth Climate Strike March in Turin, Italy, in December 2019. Image via Antonio Calanni.

Color, Clothing, and Costume as Protest

While logos and typefaces shape the official face of protest organizations, in practice, hand-drawn visual elements often still characterize demos, sit-ins, and marches. Color, clothing, and signage are versatile and can be pulled together at short notice. 

The fact that many Black Lives Matters demonstrators still produce hand-drawn signs makes it clear that the striking black-and-yellow palette is more adaptable than a font. And, even more than the color palette, it’s the phrase “Black Lives Matter” that has truly resounded with supporters. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Black Lives Matter and a Striking Color Palette
Black Lives Matter protest, Sydney, Australia. Image via Richard Milnes.

Long-established group Greenpeace, interestingly, also uses the same palette of black and yellow. This unmissable combination is immediately attention-grabbing.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Greenpeace Using Color to Attract Attention
Greenpeace activists protest outside the Fortum headquarters in Espoo, Finland, in February 2020. Image via KIMMO BRANDT.

Pride’s now universally recognized rainbow flag, which reflects the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community, is used liberally across signage, clothing, face paint, and posters. The combination of colors, itself, is the hallmark of the movement, more so than any logo or type style. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — A Rainbow of Vivid Visual Branding in the LGBTQA+ Community
Pride Parade in Antwerp, Belgium in August 2019. Image via Ana Fernandez.

Transgender Pride has also leaned on the concept of color as cause, using purple and yellow as the visual stamp of trans rights marches around the world. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Colorful Branding for Global Trans Rights Marches
Trans+ Pride: The March in London, September 2019. Image via Penelope Barritt.

Historically, protesters have often used their own bodies and clothing as visual media, from nude protests by Women’s Liberation supporters in the 1970s, to the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) worn by protesters in France, since 2018.

Clothing, costumes, and makeup are protest art in physical form, and are often more effective in gaining media attention than signs or posters. Political demonstrations, such as anti-Trump marches in recent years, often feature masks and costume as satire.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Protesters Using Masks and Costume as Satire
The 4th Annual Empowering Women’s March, Dayton, USA, in January 2020. Image via Whitney Saleski.

Interestingly, the Black Lives Matter protests have coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures, meaning many protesters are wearing masks. Some have utilized these masks as a canvas, where the words “I Can’t Breathe” — the words of Eric Garner and George Floyd and now a powerful slogan of the movement — commonly appear.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — A Demonstrator Wears a Mask at a George Floyd Protest
A protester wears a face mask reading “I Can’t Breathe” in New York, in May 2020. Image via Dan Callister.

The sexual exploitation of the female characters in the popularized TV series The Handmaid’s Tale has led to women’s rights groups using the handmaid’s costume as a timely cultural symbol of gendered repression. 

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Pop Culture and Protest
An Elimination of Violence Against Women protest in Rome, Italy, in November 2018. Image via Luigi Mistrulli.

Of course, costumes can be satirical or devotional. Protesters wearing Greta Thunberg masks at climate marches across the world isn’t scornful in its aim, but symbolic, and demonstrates the significant visual impact that a crudely printed cardboard mask can have when worn by thousands of marchers.

Professional Art and Large-Scale Installations as Protest Art

The art world has always been a receptive industry for protest issues, and many professional artists use their work to initiate discussions about issues and stimulate interest in otherwise neglected causes. Historically, the art world fostered and promoted many activist artists, such as politicized pop artist Keith Haring, feminist artist Betty Tompkins, and street artist Banksy. Today, artists are increasingly pushing the boundaries of traditional protest art and finding that alternative practices, such as performance art and outdoor installations, have the capacity to go viral online and achieve wider engagement.

In 2020, Bushfire Brandalism, a Sydney-based art collective, replaced hundreds of bus stop advertising posters across Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne with their own political art in a guerrilla-style campaign to draw attention to the bushfire crisis.

In 2018, a large-scale spoon sculpture was placed outside of Purdue Pharma’s Connecticut headquarters. The installation was created by sculptor Domenic Esposito, who wanted to draw attention to the company’s murky associations, following his brother’s battle with heroin addiction after experimenting with prescription opioids.

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Dropped my sculpture in front of Purdue Pharma this morning!!!

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In similar style, New Mexico-based art collective Postcommodity spent three years creating an installation that made a commentary on Donald Trump’s ambitions for a border wall between Mexico and the US. Called Repellent Fence (Valla Repelente), the installation consisted of twenty-eight so-called scare-eye balloons, featuring indigenous iconography, which were erected dramatically across a section of the border region.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement experimented with the platform of large-scale installations in DC. In yellow, all-cap letters spanning two blocks, the DC Department of Public Works emblazoned Sixteenth Street with the message, “Black Lives Matter.” Everything about this street art effectively champions the movement, from its positioning near the White House, to its huge size, rendered visible from satellite maps for years to come.

Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Freedom of Expression in Art
Volunteers paint “Black Lives Matter” on Sixteenth Street in Washington DC, in June 2020. Image via Jim Lo Scalzo.
Designing for Change: The Role of Protest Art in Social Movements — Community Support Through Activism
An aerial view shows two blocks of Sixteenth Street covered in the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in Washington DC, June 2020. Image via Carlos Vilas Delgado.

Protest as Art

In this article, we’ve looked at some of the diverse ways protest groups, activist organizations, and artists are making their activities and causes more visible and distinct. 

While some organizations have channeled their efforts into creating visual symbols and identities that can be easily shared and reinterpreted by supporters, others look to the simple power of color and symbols, from costume to performance, to get their message across.

Explore the Protest Art curated image collection.

Learn more about the role of art in protests and social movements in these articles:

Cover image via Vanessa Carvalho.