Protest Art from Raised Fists to Pussyhats

Protest Art Sign

Photo credit: Emanuel Rios.

On Jan. 21, roughly four million people took part in Women’s Marches around the world, raising their voices and a motley collection of signs to spread messages of solidarity. Many artists, professional or otherwise, lent their talents to the marches as well, setting a new standard for creative, passionate protest art.

The term “protest art” encompasses the multitude of posters, banners, signs, and other printed materials activists create to express political dissent or approval. The works themselves, which are often made on scraps of paper or cardboard, rarely last long. But their messages sometimes do. In 2008, Shepard Fairey spent about a day creating a red, white and blue stencil portrait of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, the word “hope” rendered beneath the portrait in large, block letters. Soon after, Fairey placed a downloadable version of the image on his website for Obama supporters to print and share. And share they did. Hundreds of thousands of copies soon proliferated online and at rallies around the country, the image eventually becoming one of the most recognizable emblems of Obama’s presidency.

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The hand that will rule the world

By Ralph Chaplin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even quickly scrawled signs or drawings can help spread ideas that might be shared years after their initial creation. In 1917, for instance, the Industrial Workers of the World — a labor union headquartered in Chicago — displayed an illustration of a prominently raised fist in one of their publications. About three decades later, in 1948, an artist working for the revolutionary Mexico City-based print collective Taller de Gráfica Popular simplified the image and began disseminating it more widely. In the years since, thousands of other artists have continued adding to or altering the image, and activists around the world have adopted it as a symbol of resistance. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Power movement used the image extensively. Around the same time, though, second-wave feminists also began using a repurposed version of the symbol (a raised fist combined with the international symbol of womanhood) as an emblem of female empowerment. The image has essentially taken on a life of its own, inspiring countless activists across generations.

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photo credit: Emmanual Rios

Photo credit: Emanuel Rios.

I saw hundreds of raised fists at the Chicago Women’s March, alongside more city-specific signs emblazoned with messages like “Trump puts ketchup on his hot dogs,” and several artfully realized renditions of the president and other high-ranking politicians (including a particularly memorable life-sized cardboard cutout of Mike Pence wearing nothing but a necktie and fetish gear). I saw many more iterations of Fairey’s work as well; the artist teamed up with the Amplifer Foundation and two other artists to release free poster designs a few days before the marches. Each of the three designs that Fairey created features a portrait of a woman representative of a population group that has historically been marginalized in this country — Muslims, Latinx and African Americans — and appears above an inspirational message: “We the people are greater than fear,” “We the people defend dignity,” “We the people protect each other.”

A new standard for creative, passionate protest art

Fairey’s posters and the rest of the protest artworks were rivaled in their numbers only by the Pussyhats that thousands of protesters donned. Bright pink, knit caps whose sides stand stiff, like cat ears, the hats were an invention of Los Angeles–area knitter Kat Coyle. Coyle released the Pussyhat pattern shortly after the election, encouraging those supportive of gender parity and more egalitarian public policies to download it and use it to knit hats for those who would be attending the Women’s Marches. And though it’s hard to tell exactly how many people knit hats, or how many people wore hats while marching, it’s clear that the project was massively successful. Nearly 100,000 people downloaded Coyle’s pattern in the months leading up to the march, while untold others made their own variations. And, as activist and art critic Ben Davis noted in Artnet, the Pussyhat could itself be considered an example of protest art. “The Pussyhat was elegantly simple, the better to be shared widely,” Davis wrote. “It was obvious in its hot-pink symbolism, the better to serve as a statement; it was witty and unexpected, the better to attract genuine enthusiasm; it was a little outrageous — “Pussyhat” self-consciously claiming the vulgarity associated with Trump’s infamous leaked Access Hollywood tape — the better to represent a bit of the defiance of the moment.”

The protest art and the Pussyhats were only two components of a much larger equation, of course. The Women’s Marches would not have been successful without the hard work and enthusiasm of all those who helped organize and participate in them. But the art on display certainly helped spread messages of solidarity, of resistance, and I found myself grinning whenever I rounded a corner and encountered another wave of brightly colored, creatively rendered signs and hot-pink hats.

Near the end of World War II, Pablo Picasso famously said art “is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” And all those who participated in the Women’s Marches demonstrated that protest art can be exactly that. They reminded us that, though art-making is not necessarily a radical act in and of itself, it can certainly be used as a tool to achieve radical ends.

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  • Ryan Emerson Baird

    As a doctoral student and musician in Los Angeles, I strongly agree with the sentiment of this post. We should all be able to recognize the power that symbols can have in our society. Whether we are attempting to show disdain/disgust toward a political ideology or solidarity with a group (or both!), artists are responsible for giving us the symbols we need in order to speak with one voice.

    The failures caused by a complacent and un-unified Democratic Party can be partly attributed to a lack of artistic motivation by it’s members (though I recognize many factors contribute to such a complex system). The current protest movement is inspirational because of the fact that it is bringing together so many people to act as advocates for those who may be oppressed by a transphobic/xenophobic/anti-women administration.

    Hopefully artists, myself included, will take advantage of the societal failures which we were complacent to – which created the current system. A grassroots movement which develops and encourages art in support of the things we believe (not unlike the internet meme effort created by Trump supporters), is our best tool for helping to counter the negativity which clouds the current political climate.