Painting a Voice

“Graffiti represents (wo)man’s desire to communicate.” [1]

The photograph of a young, female graffiti artist next to a piece of graffiti that reads “Breast Cancer Awareness” is a reflection of a community longing to be heard. The history of breast cancer is one of shame and silence. Although many cases of breast cancer are documented throughout history, it was not until the 20th-century social movements concerning breast cancer that the majority of the public became aware of the severity of this disease.

GraffitiIn the past, breast cancer was treated with radical surgeries, known as full mastectomies, which ultimately resulted in the removal of not only the cancerous tumors but both breasts. Traditionally, women with breast cancer did not speak out about these horrific surgeries and treatment. A Foucaultian understanding of this behavior is that medical control over illness leads to the patient feeling a sense of disempowerment and blame for various illnesses.[2] Such feelings are further exasperated due to many medical treatments resemble that of punishment.[3] Also, the lack of public knowledge of diseases may leave the patient feeling inadequate and unequipped to question medical authority. The vicious cycle of silence had led to nothing but a lack of medical research and more breast cancer deaths.

Currently, breast cancer is the second cause of death in women in the Western world. Thus silence towards this gripping disease is no longer an option.[4] Breast cancer activism is the primary reason for the awareness of such issues. Breast cancer activists in the US gained representation in research funding committees and influenced allocations of funds to breast cancer research.[5] There is a long history of breast cancer activism that engages in various tactics to support their cause. Poignantly, the current use of graffiti to spread awareness is an interesting sociological phenomenon that resonates both with the history of the social use and meaning of graffiti as well as graffiti’s use as a politically charged tool used to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Historically, graffiti was part of a social movement aimed at reclaiming control of the public space. These movements sought to highlight the inherent power of graffiti as a form resistance to the social control of public space. As the movement progressed, the scope of the initial goals began to widen, though still feeding off the protest centered nature of the art form.[6] A highly renowned artist, Keith Haring, engaged in the early 1980’s Graffiti Art movement in New York began to chalk his pop-culture influenced and fun-loving artwork on subway platforms to have his art reach a diverse public. After being diagnosed with HIV, Haring began to use his democratic approach towards graffiti-art to further spread awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At first, his work was continuously painted over, but over time he became so well-known and appreciated he began being employed on public art projects, public announcements and commercial campaigns, including the United Nations program, Fight AIDS Worldwide. This particular program organized to increase awareness and advance medical research concerning the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While this is just one example, studies show using public art as a means of creating awareness towards HIV/AIDS result in not only more medical research but rearticulate the meaning and treatment towards those living with this disease.[7]

In sum, this visual analysis reminds us that despite the continuous attempts of city officials to cover up the work of street artists, the history of using art as means for social change cannot be painted over. Furthermore, this image highlights the strong similarities between the graffiti movement and the current breast cancer awareness movement. The “Breast Cancer Awareness” piece publicly displayed here exemplifies that like the graffiti movement, which seeks to reclaim public space, some members within the breast cancer awareness movement are currently using graffiti to reclaim a voice among a history of breast cancer that has been plagued with silence.


[1] Wechsler, Lorraine. Introduction to Encyclopedia of Graffiti, New York: Macmillan, 1974.
[2] Klawiter, Maren. The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer: Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008
[3] Zola, Irving. “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control.” The Sociology of Health & Illness: Critical Perspectives. New York: Worth, 2005.
[4] U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2006 Incidence and Mortality Web-based Report. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Cancer Institute.
[5] Batt, Sharon. Patient No More: the Politics of Breast Cancer. Charlottetown, P.E.I.: Gynergy, 1994.
[6] Wechsler, Lorraine. Introduction to Encyclopedia of Graffiti, New York: Macmillan, 1974
[7] Echeverria E, Lambrechts S, Milesi ML, Diaz S, Silva R, Cano M. Producing HIV Health Through Art, International AIDS Conference.1998.

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