Murals are beginning to appear in our public spaces, serving as reminders of the irreversible climate change that threatens our planet.
City walls can become the birthplace of revolutions when artists take inspiration from the injustice and inequality they see around them. From the streets of Comuna 13 in Colombia to the Berlin Wall, street art has been used as a tool for expression and social change around the world.
Now, as the planet moves closer to an irreversible climate disaster, some street artists have used public spaces to showcase vivid depictions of the natural world. Murals and installations have begun appearing in our cities in a bid to grab the world’s attention. They serve as a reminder of everything we stand to lose.
Spike Clark’s street art focuses on depicting colourful and dynamic illustrations of animals. Based in Bristol, his work can be seen on the walls of shops, nightclubs, restaurants, as well as in bedrooms, bathrooms, and gardens. He paints animals because he says “they offer a return to nature in an urban setting”, reminding us of the diverse and lively world around us.
There is an ecological consideration to many of his pieces, particularly the Grangetown Whale, installed in Cardiff in 2021. Standing at seven metres (23 ft) tall and 20m (65 ft) wide, this huge depiction of a whale and her baby shows how Dinas Street in Cardiff would look underwater.
The piece was commissioned by Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth and Green Squirrel in an effort to highlight the severity of rising sea levels. Each of these organisations are committed to advocating for climate action to protect endangered animals.
“The Grangetown Whale piece describes the actual scale and impact of rising sea levels in the spot it’s painted, that being just seven metres above the current sea level,” says Spike. Talking to The Cardiffian, he explains, “I wanted something that was majestic and yet very much out of place. Taking something from the deep sea and putting it into the city. It’s something that’s not supposed to be there. Because essentially that’s the problem.”
Cardiff is the sixth most at-risk city from oceans rising, and the accompanying message, ‘No ice caps, No Cardiff,’ reminds us of our impact on the world and our vulnerability to a changing climate.
Local resident, Cerys Moody, 18, often sees the mural on her way to the supermarket. “it’s beautiful” she said, “but terrifying to think that my home town could be gone soon due to climate change.”
Spike doesn’t claim to be an activist, but his work often has elements of appreciation for the sustainability of the natural world: “often I paint animals just for the marvel of their evolution.”
Lisbon-based artist Bordalo II is also using public spaces as a canvas to create dynamic 3D representations of animals. He focuses on the constant production of trash, in particular in his series titled Big Trash Animals, in which he says, “the idea is to depict nature itself, in this case, animals, out of materials that are responsible for its destruction.”
The Big Trash Animals series has had 182 installations in 24 countries, using an estimated 74 tons of reused materials in the creation of these pieces.
One particularly striking example is his piece in Paris, installed in 2017, titled Seal Pup. Bordalo builds his works with end-of-life materials mostly found in wastelands and abandoned factories. “Damaged bumpers, burnt garbage cans, tires and appliances” are all materials he identified in his artwork.
The Big Trash Animals are all created out of the waste that threatens their existence. Of the 5800 million tonnes of primary plastic no longer in use, only 9% has been recycled since 1950. The rest ends up in landfill or in marine environments where it can harm or kill wildlife.
Marine life can become entangled in plastic waste, particularly in ghost nets. Unintentional ingestion of plastic and interaction with plastic including collisions, obstructions, and abrasions can also harm wildlife in their natural environments.
Bordalo’s Half-half and Plastics collections depict this waste in more detail. Stripped of camouflage, the pieces display a visual kaleidoscope of colours — all pieces of waste plastic. A spokesperson for Bordalo says: “The focus is on form and composition in order to create colourful works, demonstrating the artist’s appreciation for the contradictory beauty of our waste, through games of contrast, texture, colour and depth, created with parts of recognisable objects from our daily lives.“
For example, Bordalo’s Lince Ibérico, installed in Lisbon, Portugal in 2019, displays identifiable pieces of plastic, showing us what we are throwing away, and also what can be created with it. The Iberian lynx that inspired this piece is endemic to the Iberian peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is currently an endangered species, and conservation measures have been put in place to increase populations.
Hattie Allan, a mixed media artist from the UK, was inspired by Bordalo’s work: “Reusing scrap materials, like plastic, is an innovative way to minimise waste while creating something vibrant and aesthetic.” Inspiring others to recycle and restore old materials can change the way we think about waste and work towards creating long-lasting and constructive artwork.
Using the same construction concepts of Plastics, Bordalo’s Floating series also addresses the problem of plastic pollution. He gathers marine waste from the site of installation and creates ephemeral reconstructions of sea life. These pieces only exist to be captured as images before they are removed, but their lasting impression has much wider implications.
The Swimming with Sharks piece, displayed at the ONO’U Tahiti Festival in Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia in 2019, creates a prominent symbol of our entwined existence with the natural world and the plastics we produce, shown through the proximity of the pictured human and the shark.
Plastic accumulates on shorelines, in coastal shallow waters and offshore. Microplastics (less than 0.5cm in diameter) and macroplastics (more than 0.5cm in diameter) have been found in the oceans dating back to the 1950s and 60s. Three-quarters of microplastics found in offshore environments are from before the 1990s, revealing that it can take several decades for plastics to break down.
In 2009, world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle said: “knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions.” For Bordalo, reworking trash materials into artwork creates visual representations of the destruction plastics can do, and how our relationship with the environment is changing. By showing us the beauty of nature replaced by trash, he encourages us to question how our actions will impact the world around us, and our own existence.
Artist Vegan Flava uses murals as a form of visual activism. Through his art, he aims to illustrate the fragility of our ecosystems and urges us to save our endangered species.
For World Oceans Day on June 8, 2021, he unveiled Blue Desert, a mural in Stockholm displaying a harbour porpoise, the only whale to live in Swedish waters all year round. The piece draws attention to the consequences of human actions on the marine ecosystems of the Baltic Sea. On his website, Vegan Flava wrote, “The amazing life of the Baltic Sea has been transferred to human-body mass on land.”
The population of harbour porpoises is in decline, and as a 2016 report estimates, stands at less than 500 animals. They are a ‘critically endangered’ species on a path to extinction, and so Vegan Flava’s work takes inspiration from conservation efforts to save this dying marine species.
The sheer scale of the piece demonstrates the artist’s urgency to represent these unignorable problems, which he names as the “ruthless predation of industrial fishing,” explaining that “many fish species are overfished and endangered, ecosystems are destroyed and the water is polluted.”
The ghost nets wrapped around the porpoise’s head represent the 10,000 fishing nets lost annually in the Baltic Sea that become deadly to marine life as they are carried around by currents underwater for decades. The marine conservation group Sea Shepherd states that these ‘ghost nets’ amount to almost one-tenth of the world’s marine waste.
Polluted water from chemical run-off also threatens sea life. Vegan Flava names nitrogen and phosphorus from meat and milk production around the coasts as causing damage to marine ecosystems, acting like a fertiliser and causing excessive phytoplankton growth. This leads to reduced light underwater and the depletion of oxygen levels, disrupting the delicate balance of complex marine ecosystems. As Vegan Flava says, it becomes “an underwater desert where nothing can live.”
The lower back of the Blue Desert porpoise is made of roots and eelgrass, to demonstrate how marine life is all entwined in complex ecosystems and different organisms. As a producer of food and oxygen for underwater species, eelgrass is essential to maintain aquatic biodiversity and productive ecosystems. However, as eutrophication from nutrient run-off continues to damage eelgrass, wider ecosystems are at risk of being destroyed.
In November 2022, Vegan Flava sent a canvas painting of Blue Desert, along with a petition signed by 120,000 signatures to the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. The commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičus, was urged to make efforts to protect the Baltic Sea and save the harbour porpoise from extinction.
Currently, one of the main aims of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is to save the sea and conserve marine biodiversity. So far, the Strategy has supported cooperation between farmers to reduce eutrophication and encouraged greater involvement of Russian partners to improve environmental protection and water quality.
In a similar theme to his 2021 piece, Vegan Flava’s World Ocean Day piece for 2022 is named Neck-Deep in the Koster Fjord. It depicts two sharks native to the Koster Fjord on the west coast of Sweden. The Spiny dogfish and the Small-spotted Catshark are both endangered species that are legally protected but are often caught unintentionally while fishing.
Lophelia pertusa, the plant the artist chose to depict alongside the sharks, is the only reef-building coral in Sweden. Fishing off the coast of Sweden has destroyed large areas of the coral, as nets have been dragged along the sea bed and caught the coral in the process. The reef now only covers around 5,000 square metres, less than the size of a football pitch, and is continuing to shrink.
The artist has also painted the blue flowers of Oyster plant, which he explains on his website is: “predicted to be Sweden’s first plant species to go extinct due to climate change.” Oyster plant grows on sand or single beaches, but is at threat of extinction due to habitat destruction. Currently, the last few plants in Sweden grow along the Koster Fjord near Strömstad where the mural is located.
The artist wanted to emphasise the urgency of finding solutions to species decline. On his website, he writes that the mural is designed to “highlight the beautiful archipelago at Kosterhavet National Park,” the only marine national park in Sweden and home to more than 6,000 species.
By portraying the plants and animals side-by-side, Vegan Flava demonstrates how species decline will impact other species and ecosystems, and writes, “every lost species is a poorer, less functioning and more destabilised world.”
Street art is just one demonstration of a growing climate consciousness. Becoming aware of the changing climate is the first step in reducing the impact of our actions on the world. Furthermore, we are beginning to understand how our relationships with our environment are evolving, as urban spaces become home to complex ecosystems.
The expression of these changing environments in our public spaces reminds us of the delicate but essential balance of all life on earth and urges us to fight to protect it. Taking inspiration from the biodiversity loss happening all around us, these murals and installations become symbols of a problem we cannot ignore.
Featured image: Lab Rat by Bordalo II. Photograph by Jeanne Menjouet via Flickr CC.