A water station in Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. 

Joel Bergner is a nomadic street artist, educator and advocate for social action. Joel collaborates with organizations all over the world to produce street art projects with youth who face difficult circumstances such as violent conflict, disabilities, poverty and social exclusion. Joel works with his participants to weave together social themes, messages and imagery into community murals to inspire neighborhood residents and raise awareness regarding social issues. Most recently Joel’s work has taken him to Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, the City of God neighborhood of Rio de Janiero, Brazil and the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Joel recently stopped by WITNESS with fellow street artist Wise2 to discuss the intersection of social action, street art and video advocacy.


Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya

Sarah Kerr: Can you speak briefly about how can street art be used as a tool for change? Can you give an example of a project/campaign that you worked on that ties together art and political activism?

Joel Bergner: In the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya, I joined forces with a local youth organization called Kibera Hamlets to lead workshops focused on peace-building through public art. In March of this year there was a presidential election, and everyone was fearful that it would result in ethnic-based violence, rioting and killing, as the previous election had in 2007. Our project focused on encouraging peace, anti-corruption and an end to ethnic hatred through a series of murals designed and painted with the participation of local kids, teens and adults. We even enlisted the help of local graffiti artists to paint messages of peace on a huge passenger train that passes through the slum and other neighborhoods in Nairobi everyday.

This is an example of how public art initiatives can include local populations and work toward social change. By reaching out to the local and international media about this project, the story of youth and artists working toward peaceful elections in their country was told all around the world through outlets like NPR, Reuters, AFP and CNN. We also created a documentary film about the experience, which is intended to further spread the message (link to trailer is available here).

SK: Can you describe the level of political organization amongst street artists in your community and globally? Do you work on common issues? Are there certain themes that are popular civic topics amongst your circle of street artists?

JA: The current street art scene is part of a long tradition of mural art movements that have often included social messages and commentary. While it is common for artists to discuss important social topics in their work, there does not seem to be a great deal of political organizing within the street artist community. However this may be beginning to change now as the popularity of the art form makes it clear that it could be a powerful social tool if artists decided to organize themselves to advocate for a specific cause.

A video about one of Joel’s projects in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

SK: Can you describe the current legal landscape in respect to street art? What are the challenges and opportunities this reality presents?

JA: Street art and graffiti exist in both the legal and illegal realms. The illegal work is important because that makes a statement that the streets belong to everyone; it is a rejection of mainstream society’s belief that only the wealthy and powerful should have the right to decide what our urban environment should look like and feel like. But legal artwork also has its place, as it can reach new audiences, allow artists the time to develop their skills, and can be included in festivals and other events.

SK: How do you currently use video in your work? Are there other ways you hope to use video in the future to amplify your message and share your work?

JA: Video is an important tool. As I discussed above, we documented the youth in Kenya as they worked toward peaceful change through public art. This allows the audience to learn about the situation in Kenya and meet the kids involved in a more in- depth way than simply looking at some photos. I also like making time-lapse videos of the painting process so that the audience can witness the work as it is being created. I hope to continue to work with video on my future projects in creative ways.

More about Joel’s work can be found on his website.

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