I took my first art history class as an unhoused city college student. My teacher was an elder visual artist who herself had experienced housing instability as an out lesbian in the pre-Stonewall era. Each class, she fed me the type of artistic inspiration I needed to survive the brutal dehumanization of the New York City shelter system. Tales of herself as a young person wheatpasting queer protest art on the site of her day job, court buildings, and corporate offices; effacing and reclaiming these sites of systemic violence in the only way she could.
The systems that brutalize unhoused and housing-unstable people are invested in stripping our subjectivity away into a head count, a federal grant, or a shameful statistic. Creating and viewing art directly confronts this process, because art is about the transcendence of individual and collective humanity in the face of the unknowable or unbearable.When a few of us created 37MLK in August 2019—an autonomous tiny home community of unhoused people on a formerly vacant Oakland lot—the first thing we did was make it beautiful. One elder, Yvonne, carted over several ornate flowerpots that had been put in the recycling. Another person crafted colorful posters reminding residents to pick up trash and share supplies. We entwined the fence with garlands and fabric.
When we bought colorful tents, artsy outdoor furniture, and pretty fairy lights for the camp, I hoped this aesthetic would encourage residents to remember that they don’t just deserve the bare minimum (even though they’re not even getting that). They deserve spaces that go beyond survival to include beauty and art, which is a fundamental part of culture. And we know that La Cultura Cura. Scientific studies like the Rat Park Experiments have shown that when beings have environments that feel intellectually and emotionally stimulating, apart from simply meeting basic survival needs, they naturally find it easier to practice moderation in behaviors such as substance use. Several studies have also demonstrated the efficacy of art programs in decreasing painful symptoms of mental illness. Both of these issues touched me or my family members when I was unhoused, so I feel like my gravitation towards art was my brain’s intuitive recognition of art’s healing power before I even knew the formal science—what Lisa Grey-Garcia calls “poverty scholarship,” poor people’s extra-academic ways of knowing.
“We use art as a weapon—as self-defense”
The constant police repression of unhoused activism in Oakland is another reason why 37MLK was so careful to maintain an artistic presentation in its early days; why the tiny houses there are painted so colorfully. We hoped that having this aesthetic would decrease the chance of neighbors or strangers seeing the camp as threatening, an eyesore, criminal, or any of the other stereotypes of unhoused communities. Unhoused people shouldn’t have to perform in these ways just to survive, but the reality is they too often do. Every summer, I see colorful “art houses” roll through the streets of our Oakland neighborhood, headed to Burning Man. When rich white people build quirky artistic tiny houses for a week in the desert, no one blinks an eye. Yet those same tiny houses, when built by unhoused people for survival, become targeted by the city for eviction. We hoped that by tapping into a certain “cool urban art” aesthetic, people like burners might harass us less or care about our project more. I ask that people who have never been homeless take a minute and think about what those of us who have been unhoused have to understand: that to large segments of polite society, the urban garden/artist chic aesthetic is more compelling than our very lives. This is why we also use art as a weapon—as self-defense.
Several years ago at a protest for unhoused Berkeley residents, activists spray painted “art is a weapon” on Berkeley City Hall. Art is a particularly effective weapon for unhoused and housing-unstable people because it can cross barriers of language, access to technology, or reading ability. It can quickly disseminate information, encourage resistance, and support psychological survival. For example, the murals in West and Downtown Oakland that each illustrate one point of the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program are political and historical education in a beautiful and accessible format. Meanwhile, powerful red and black art posters printed by local mutual aid organizations provide legal information about the eviction moratorium to folks who might not have computer access on my block.
More than that, protest art can change the emotional landscape of a block that is rapidly gentrifying. Among the visual signs of gentrification (“gentrification grey” paint jobs, Teslas parked in driveways) these art posters are the visual signs of our continued resistance. They really matter—they make me feel better on the days that I’ve just had to battle my landlord, or received a 15-day eviction notice in the mail. It’s not just the recognition of my struggle, or the powerful illustrations that dignify that struggle. It’s the insistence that we’re still here. That there will still always be more of us—poor people, people of color, workers—than there are of those in power. If someone is here posting this art today, maybe if I’m getting evicted tomorrow they will be there for me too—will join me in the streets, or mutual aid projects, or all the different places unhoused and housing-unstable people are organizing and co-creating new worlds together. Art is the map that allows us to find each other. Art is the weapon we wield once we do.
Stefani Echeverría-Fenn is founder of #37MLK and The Sportula: Microgrants for Classics Students.