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Words on the street: the art of politics

The election might be dull, but the street art it’s inspired is anything but. And its message is: get out and vote

Cat Phillipps, Trapped (2024), appeared on the day Rishi Sunak made his election announcement

Ever-venturous, David Buonaguidi (aka “Real Hackney Dave”) was off the blocks well before Rishi Sunak made his soggy election announcement. Sorely aggrieved by low turnout and rueing his decision not to vote against Brexit – “Because I never thought it would happen!” – the adman turned artist and printmaker, together with Inky Fingers Gallery, produced Voting Schmoting: an exhibition of more than 250 artworks emphasising the importance of casting a ballot. 

His own contribution to the show consists of flouro-pink block lettering on TfL seat material that spells out the implacable phrase, “Get Off Your Arse”. On top of raising awareness of the importance of voting, all profits from the show went towards student bursaries to support attendance at Camberwell College of Art.

Similarly vexed by voter apathy, designer and veteran campaigner Katharine Hamnett has made clear her desire for everyone to be politically engaged. In a nationwide street poster campaign, a bold design bears a commanding message for passersby, “Don’t let them stop you voting”. Hamnett’s politics are left wing – 40 years ago she famously met Margaret Thatcher wearing an anti-nuclear slogan T-shirt and, recently, she has binned her CBE on account of British involvement in Gaza. 

But when quizzed as to why she doesn’t specifically endorse one party over another, Hamnett explained: “It’s quite good to be political without telling people which party to vote for so they use their common sense. We’re trying to get young people out to vote and women out to vote, and if you get young people out to vote, they normally vote left. Women are sensible. You’ve got to carry the can for everything, and they tend to vote left as well. So we’re desperate to get them out to vote.”

Cat Phillipps is another woman whose art and activism are inextricably linked. Her poster work Trapped (2024) appeared on the streets of towns and cities on the very day Sunak made his damp, doomy speech outside 10 Downing Street. Phillipps is already feted as one half of the art activist duo kennardphillipps, but Trapped is derived from her solo work. 

In two huge, painterly pieces, we see the Tory and Labour leaders baying in front of their respective members of parliament. Black ink bleeds across blanched, pallid faces. Here defacement is a mode of visual protest, along with all those toppled statues, vandalised “masterpieces” and graffitied monuments. 

These are all last-resort bids to be heard, to rail at a politics that ignores, patronises or, worse still, blatantly misleads the voting public. In Phillipps’s words, “We’re caught between two shitshows of self-serving power, no guiding principles, just the toxic leak of greed, and people left to survive a national landscape devastated by politics sleeping with corporate influences.”

With no less ire but a generous dollop of scatological humour thrown in, “Grow Up” is the father and son collaborative partnership of Mark and Jack Blamire. Their recent graphic brings together in their election-related work, Vote Out to Help Out, 18 instances of government peers’ and ministers’ various “kinks”: Michelle Mone’s Cheap Rubber Nurses’ Outfits; Liz Truss’s Shitting On The Economy; James Cleverly’s Date Rape Jokes About My Wife

There are posters on the streets, but there is also a plethora of merch and media – stickers, T-shirts, prints, stencils and tea towels – in a relentless anti-Tory tirade. 

On perhaps a gentler, though ultimately no less didactic note, Rob Ryan – a visual artist who specialises in paper cutting and screen printing – has produced an exquisite election-related bloom. The five petals of his print each cover general principles of a good society, such as Truth, Justice, Love. But in the middle of Ryan’s flower, in tiny lettering gleaming out from an overlay of all the translucent colours used in the print, are the words, “Don’t Vote Tory”.

Benjamin Irritant’s images of politicised rabbits with placards have appeared on the streets from Aberdeen to Kathmandu. His take on the 2024 election – perhaps any election given the current system – would appear to be, “Don’t trust any of them!” 

Old favourites such as The Artist Taxi Driver (aka Mark McGowan), Darren Cullen (under the Insta moniker of @spellingmistakescost-lives) and Cold War Steve (Chris Spencer, ex-probation officer, now collagist phenomenon) are all busy sharing their election-related work. 

Regarding Cold War Steve, the Brexit art chronicler Noni Stacey quotes the journalist Jon Savage on the joys and horrors of visual satire: “These images are at once very funny and very cruel. They are designed to be. When organised politics is in chaos – indeed, when politicians are purposely working to harm the population who have elected them – the only response is a scalding rage which, to avoid its turning inwards, must be transmuted into activism or artistic activity.”

When Theresa May called her own snap election in 2017, banging on about “strong and stable government”, the artist Jeremy Deller’s street poster riposte was simply, “Strong and stable my arse”. And so it proved – a hung parliament was the result. In 2024, within days of Sunak trying to spring a fast one on us, Deller’s latest poster artwork declared: “We have been swimming in shit”. Says it all really.

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