The Art of Protest Signs

In a world of both Trump and social media, protest signs have never been so creative and sharable. We analysed some of the best signs from the March for Science in April and the Women’s March in January to see why they are so important and what makes them so effective.

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

ART AS A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
Creativity and imagery is an extremely successful tool for expressing an important message or theme, particularly when it wants global attention. Both the March for Science and Women’s March displayed an abundance of creativity through the use of protest signs. From Donald Trump’s face and vaginas being used in every way imaginable, to the fear-provoking art of key landmarks drowning from global warming. Social media acts as the transportation for delivering these glorious and sometimes OMFG images to every part of the world.

Globalisation has somewhat forced us to consider the situations and understandings of the rest of the world, along with our own. Both the Women’s March and March for Science were very much global issues, creating a great deal of international conversation throughout the “pubic sphere”. By public sphere I’m referring to (as defined by Habermas) “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body”. The physical activism that is displayed in protests is an example of the public sphere in all its glory.

Emiliano Valdes, the Chief Curator at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art discussed the theory of “art as a universal language” for UWC. He explained how his core passion for art stemmed greatly from its power, “…it can transform our gaze and our mind, make us look at the world in a different way, free our mind from small, egoistic thinking. I love that art has no boundaries and no taboos, everything can be discussed, and things, themes, concerns, and urgencies approached in non-orthodox ways.”. Non-orthodox is one way to describe some of the very outrageously creative? Or just plain shocking protest art from the Women’s March, but I definitely see your point Emiliano – art definitely has no boundaries.

Source: Chana Kasinger (Glamour)
Source: Chana Kasinger (Glamour)

It’s also important to note however that protest art branches further than just the visual signs themselves – music is also commonly (and controversially) used to help gain attention. The Westboro Baptist church is infamously recognized for their overly offensive protest tactics. One of these is creating parodies of popular songs – often to the dislike of the original artists.
There is an ongoing debate between academics regarding whether art is a language or language is an art. It’s some food for thought…

THE VIRAL, THE CONTROVERSIAL AND THE PUNS
An incredibly effective, however controversial protest sign went viral after being posted on Reddit by user GallowBoob. It received a massive 85.5k up votes on the platform and almost 9000 comments from many people disagreeing with the use of the statistic. The statistic featured on the sign was controversial as it was reported by CBSN as the amount spent by the US Department of Defense for erectile dysfunction of military personnel, which makes sense as it’s highly common for servicemen to be diagnosed with “psychogenic ED”. The kicker being that the Department of Defense does in fact cover female personnel’s birth control. But at the end of the day, it’s controversy is the key reason it was seen by thousands of people worldwide.

Source: Reddit, posted by GallowBoob
Source: Reddit, posted by GallowBoob

When you spend a lot of time on the internet, one thing becomes very clear – humour and brains always win. If you want your message to go viral, then clever and funny are a great combo that almost guarantees you at least a few of them sweet re-tweets. The greatness that is “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA” earned himself a smooth 3.1k likes, and 1.8k retweets. While “protest sine” and “protest cosine” received over 38k likes and 16.8k retweets (not to mention that it also went viral on Facebook – like all good tweets somehow do). Twitters global reach is roughly four times bigger than its domestic – making it an international “trading post” for ideas, commentary and news. However, as the Science March proved – a saturation of hilarious viral puns and pop culture references on signs can often overshadow the actual message trying to be sent.

THE POWER OF A HASHTAG
Now looking away from the signs themselves, but the influence social media has on building the initial community of a common cause. Dan Mercea and Andreas Funk discuss social media in reference to the Pan-European Stop-ACTA protests back in 2012. Their recent journal article states that “social media content such as tweets, twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, Facebook groups and pages seemed to act as a lifeline for the protests, connecting disparate demonstrations into a scalable network..”. Hashtags have certainly become a core part of the “community” aspect of a protest – particularly on global issues. It allows people from all around the world to contribute to the conversation, while also providing organic and genuine live updates from people of the particular cause.

Source: Twiter, posted by @HeavyArmsDan "Go home everyone, best sign. #ScienceMarchCHI"
Source: Twiter, posted by @HeavyArmsDan “Go home everyone, best sign. #ScienceMarchCHI”
Source: Twitter, posted by @alisongriswold “Sine Game”
Source: Twitter, posted by @alisongriswold “Sine Game”

We are certainly living in an exciting time for social and political protests. Creativity, pop culture and smart puns have become the back bone to any good viral protest sign. Social media has become a key tool in the “gathering” and “sharing” of causes through the use of hashtags, and “group” functions. I’d like to go as far as saying that the Science March was somewhat a gathering of very smart people with very smart signs – but I’m sure underneath all the hashtags and puns, there was a far more serious message. But like seriously? Protest sine / protest cosine. HILARIOUS.

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