Politics in Paint: Decoding Parisian Street Art
During her sophomore year, Katherine McNally ’18 took Is Paris Burning? May 1968, a course taught by Chair and Professor of French Cheryl Morgan.
As part of the course, McNally examined the events of May 1968 in Paris through books, poems, and graffiti. During this period, Paris experienced an intense bout of civil unrest, with demonstrations and strikes occurring across France. At its height, the protests essentially brought the French economy to a halt.
“The artistic aspect of the posters in this social uprising fascinated me, as it consolidated the general sentiments of the rioters into visual displays of their discontent, introducing an alternative way to protest,” said McNally.
Hometown: Natick, Mass.
High school: Concord Academy
This realization caused McNally to better understand art in the street as loaded with meaning, a way for the public to speak for itself. It was not just a more sophisticated form of vandalism.
By going directly to the source and studying the abundant graffiti around Paris, she theorized that she might gain a better understanding of the current French political climate, and of public opinion. The walls of Paris, not the media, contain the true French political sentiment. From this idea stemmed McNally’s 2017 Emerson Research Grant proposal.
McNally studied abroad in Paris during the last academic year, and thus was a resident during both the American and French presidential elections. During this period, McNally noticed the Parisian people expressing their opinions and reactions to everything happening in politics creatively, in a way that is very accessible.
“Graffiti is such a collective and reciprocal form of art. I wanted to explore these observations more deeply, and figure out which political topics inspired graffiti street art and why,” said McNally.
To do this, McNally has divided her research into three parts. The first combines reading (current events, history of graffiti, and history of French politics) and actively searching and documenting Parisian graffiti. In part two, she will organize and catalogue the photos, and then present the images, narrating the political or social implications behind each one. Finally, McNally will take her research of French graffiti artists to create her own street art, inspired by the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Once her research is complete, McNally hopes to display her work at Hamilton, along with the 1000 photographs of graffiti she will have taken by the end of her research, 50 from each arrondissement of Paris. Through this project, McNally hopes to deepen her understanding of French politics and the issues at hand, as well as gain more knowledge of a city she loves.