Activism Art: Changing Hearts and Minds Through Creative Expression

image showing protest art with the words "mind your own uterus" painted on, and the caption, "Activism Art: Changing Hearts and Minds Through Creative Expression"

Creating activism art to share with the world is such a vulnerable dance…

Art is a messenger. The process of making and creating can be healing or energizing, or stir up grief and anger. It can be a bridge that helps us learn about ourselves, others, and our creative expression in art. 

What is activism art?

Activism art is a really specific kind of art, created for the purpose of inspiring and motivating change – and there is a lot of thought that goes into making each piece. It can be as simple as text on a poster or as complex as an oil painting using the colors that represent an oppressed group of people.

You can absolutely show up and freehand a protest poster, but with just a little more thought and planning, you could also show up and freehand a poster with the goal in mind, the typography pre-sketched on a note pad, and an idea of any next steps you may want to include.

Making art as activism can make a brave and impactful statement when there is something oppressive to confront. I am writing this post at a time when, as an artist, I feel deeply compelled to explore how my art could change hearts and minds and impact the world in a more humane way. 

Activism art connects humans with messages that unite

Until we are all free, those of us who are free have a responsibility to our fellow humans to liberate those who are still fighting for their lives, for basic dignity, human rights and equality. Because of this truth, I am committed to learning how I can listen, speak up, vote, take brave action, and explore my artistic resistance as a way to challenge the systems that oppress.

As a woman living in a white body, buffered by the privilege that this skin has served me, I don’t claim to understand the lived experience of those still being unvalued, oppressed and even violently eradicated. Brutal systems of oppression continue to reign supreme, and I believe art is a powerful way to call a spade a spade, to cut through the cognitive dissonance that helps us tuck away into our comfort zones and imagine that everyone has the privilege to do this. 

“The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely. That’s how I see it. Otherwise, I don’t know why you do it.”

– Amiri Baraka

But… What about the fear of saying too much?

Whenever there is fear around “saying too much” about power and oppression, there is opportunity for art to make an impact. Whenever we meet “that’s just the way it is” in the face of inhumane and violent injustices, there’s an opportunity for art to make an impact. 

For the filmmakers, the muralists, the infographic magicians, the hand letterers, the painters, illustrators and musicians.. There is almost always some degree of pondering the question, can art change the world? Can my art change the world? How can I impact issues that are important to me through my art?

I don’t know of any artist who doesn’t want to make some sort of impact through their creative expression. And when the world feels upside down with injustice, the time is ripe for innovating new creative masterpieces designed to speak truth to power. 

The fear of saying too much will always be present when our art speaks truth to power – and it will be present until we break free of the oppressive systems that perpetuate that fear. So really, we have to go within and work on our own fears and take steps we feel we can take – but do hop out of your comfort zones if you can find safety doing so. It’s the only way to get closer to making activism art. 

How can artistic activism actually change hearts and minds?

activism art image shows lettering that says "my humanity is tied up in yours for we can only be human together."
Using colors of the Palestinian flag, and a silhouette of a child’s face to center those harmed by genocide.

Activism art can challenge collective complacency by plunking down an image or message so starkly un-ignorable, that we are moved to the point of action – or moved to the point of thinking about action.. The point is to create art that makes it harder and harder to slip into complacency, even if we have the privilege of doing so. The goal is to show the ugly truth and motivate action.

As an artist, engaging in artistic activism can be risky business. Expressing dissent always is. You may fear losing your following or losing business by speaking out on controversial topics, and your fear is valid. Creating art as activism is not risk-free. But it is a powerful tool to challenge injustice, so if your goal is to work to liberate all bodies, you’ll have to find ways to get comfortable losing followers; or friends; or even family. 

One thing remains true: these systems that have oppressed and colonized marginalized bodies for so long – these systems are honored and revered and even feel holy to many people. Creating art as activism means that if you challenge those systems, behaviors or values of these historical oppression machines, you will lose some people, and you may be labeled as something you are not. 


Can you make activism art and.. not lose friends?

I’m not sure, honestly. There’s probably a reason you may feel afraid to speak too loudly, and that reason may be the knowing that you will be shunned by some people for speaking up for the liberation of others. That is a sad reality, and it’s important to be gentle and kind with yourself when these people fall away. Rather than trying to convince them, just keep making art and making connections to how people can take action to protect others. Maybe someday your art will bring them around. 

If I lose people in my life because my speaking up about atrocities makes them uncomfortable (oh no!), or because my speaking up reminds them of facts that are pretty hard to continue to wrap up in the cozy fluff of the cognitive dissonance that helps them believe they have a right to be revered as a more valuable human being… Well, it’s hard to come to terms with sometimes. What a disappointing reality. But it’s a thing I am becoming more comfortable with. And you can too in the ways that feel appropriate for you. I do suggest a strong support circle, and a good therapist if you have the means. Support is so important when you’re being brave and using your voice.

How can my art make a difference in the world around us?

Good art evokes emotions and behaviors, whether literally, through bold graphic directives, or more subtly, through the historical motifs showing up in a vintage pattern. Art as activism is the act of using your creative expression to challenge the status quo, speak out about the harm being inflicted on others, and remind us that we are all human – and that can motivate us to take care of each other. 

Through color, typography, symbolism and circumstance, your art can influence others with powerful messages that are hard to ignore. 

So… How can I make activism art?

Let’s get into some specifics for making art with the goal of cracking through cognitive dissonance and mobilizing others. 

Design your art with a goal in mind

As you’re asking the question, how can art change the world?, here is where you want to get intentional with your goals. What do you want to happen? What’s your message? Are you trying to shine a light on something? Motivate people to follow a link to sign a petition? Are you highlighting a piece of legislation to educate others? Do you prefer to inspire others rather than direct them to do something?

Before you make anything, be clear on your goal – what change are you hoping to make? Who are you centering? If your cause is to bring awareness about some sort of harm, be sure you are centering those who are being harmed. Craft your message and write it on a smaller note paper rather than straight onto a larger surface. That way you can play around with how to lay your message out in the most effective way. 

Lean into simplicity and clarity – you don’t always have to create a work of revolutionary art in order to deliver a clear message of dissent. Once you have your goal, read on to get some tips on crafting your message and/or creating your composition.

Craft your message, along with any next step action items  

Are you leaning toward a bold graphic message with actual words and text? Or a piece of impactful artwork sans text? Or a graphic piece with both art and text? Whether you are designing local activism posters or an email campaign, if you are creating art as activism, being strategic in your messaging and layout will help others receive your message more clearly and understand what you want them to do. 

This is where you want to think out your whole message pathway. If you are designing a poster for an event, you likely won’t have a bunch of “next steps” that you want people to take. But if you are raising awareness about a cause where your goal is to get buy-in, volunteer hours, or some other kind of support from others, be sure to think through your whole strategy for your messaging.

In addition to sharing your message on social media, you can hand out small flyers or business cards at an in-person event with one main bold message. For example, if you create a piece of environmental protest art and you want people to visit a web page with further instructions, forms, or action items, print a QR code on the business card or flyer, directing people to your web page where you can go deeper.

If you’re making a text based poster, try to keep your message brief overall. Between 4 – 8 words is usually plenty. Posters aren’t the space to elaborate, so remember to ask yourself, what kind of an impression can I make if someone only looks at my poster for 2 seconds? And if you do want to elaborate, follow the steps above to create a give-away item people can read when they have more than a couple of seconds.

How to visually structure the text in your message

activism art image shows a graphic message, "We can't let our future become our past if we are to change the world" - Ben Harper. Text is colorful and framed on both sides with black line drawn flowers.If you’re working with text in your activism art, let’s do a quick dip into some tips to make the most important part of your message stand out. One of the main threads running through most protest art is a big, bold message highlighting your goal or the message. 

Be sure to choose one or two words to emphasize – words that really embody the message you are sharing. Your goal is to change hearts and minds – so focus on words that mean something to your audience. For those words, be sure to use a bold, powerful text – and for added impact, you can write these words in ALL CAPS. You can even enlarge them to be much bigger than the other words in your message. 

This image shows the words I wanted to really emphasize, and those that are more supporting text show up a little smaller. But another artist might emphasize completely different words, which is an opportunity to take the same message and make meaning from it personally.

The point is for those to be the loudest words in your message. Imagine actually hearing your message when you read it – and then you’ll know which words to emphasize. You can then structure the other words in a smaller size, around the bold title words. 


Use color wisely

Color can truly contribute to or take away from a strong piece of activism art. Some pieces are designed using the colors of the group of people who are affected, weaving in the symbolism of those colors in a meaningful way. Some pieces are simply text with all black letters and then one word with bright red letters. 

Color draws the eye in, and can be used very deliberately to emphasize words and symbols. If you don’t have a specific color palette based on the message you are sending, I suggest doing a little research into your cause to see what colors do stand out and for what reason. 

Creating a color palette will help your art feel really cohesive and clean, even if you can’t find any colors that are already relevant to your cause. And remember, warm colors like red, orange, and hot pink, will inspire more urgent action than cool subdued colors like blues, grays and greens. 

Double check your “next steps” message 

If you’re utilizing a QR code or sending people to a url or elsewhere, be sure to double check the path from start to finish to make sure it makes sense. If people are actually motivated enough to take the next step with you, be sure it leads them somewhere productive, where they can complete the next step and not be left hanging.

How can I align my activism art with other industries or communities?

activism art image with poster painted with the words "mind your own uterus" and a painting of a uterus flipping the birdThere are so many artists working in so many realms. Regardless of the industry in which you find yourself, there are a lot of ways to support causes that align with your current industry. If you are really dedicated to these causes, it makes sense to give them more attention and even elevate your activism messages through your career contacts.

Some industry + creative activism examples might look like a women’s health center co-sponsoring or sharing a piece of feminist protest art; or a coalition of dietitians coming together to speak up against the military using starvation and dehydration as a weapon of war and gen*cide against innocent children and families. 

In order to really organize and create real change, it’s pretty imperative to find those communities and industry contacts who can elevate your message and mobilize more bodies into action. The more connections we make, the more our message can travel and impact more people. 


Bring more purpose into your life by making activism art

Engaging in creative expression that really makes a difference, calls for change, and impacts a lot of people can be incredibly satisfying and purposeful. Many artists who create activism art find themselves engaged in more community projects, surrounded by likeminded others who share their goals for creating a better world.

If you’re an artist dedicated to creating a better world, don’t underestimate the power of your art to change the world around you. Creative expression heals the creative making the art and those who experience it.

Find the organizations doing the work you want to support, and throw your art into some things. Or just pay attention to current events if you’re looking for ways to help your fellow humans by creating impactful art. Your creativity may be the thing that sparks inspiration in someone else and motivates them to take bold action also.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

This post was all about changing hearts and minds by making and sharing activism art. Wishing you the luck of the cosmos as you bring your activism and your art-ivism together.

Other posts you may be interested in:
The Beginner’s Guide to Taking a Creative Leap of Faith: Building a Creative Business from Your Passions