You Can Simultaneously Hold City Leaders Accountable And Celebrate The Artists Behind The BLM Mural
Updated: Jun 17
Art, politics, and revolution are not exclusive to one another. In fact, Art is a form of activism through symbolism, which by and large is one of the most explicitly vivid and striking forms of protest. Given the string of events since watching George Floyd narrate his own death in real time, there has been an uprising of demand from Black people across the world, amplified by allies from various cultures and allegiances, solidifying that this time we won't remain silent about Black genocide, police brutality, and systemic racism. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the protests have followed a chronological order of disappointment, rage, and violence, often initiated by the local police department. However, on Tuesday June 9th, 2020, the protests and activism shifted into a collective of local artists voicing their anger, optimism, and perceptions, in a way only they could articulate it.
With the support of the city of Charlotte, local organizations Brand The Moth, BLKMRKT CLT, and Charlotte is Creative, orchestrated a historic collaboration within 48 hours, and brought together some of the most talented artist in the city, to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on one of the busiest streets in downtown Charlotte. Opposite to the overwhelming support the artists received, was backlash and heightened suspicion from other locals who felt the mural was performative, not sufficient, and merely symbolized a band-aid being placed over substantive issues that directly effected black people and minorities in Charlotte.
As it currently stands, 40% of the Charlotte's budget is allocated to the Police department, and the proposed budget for 2021 will see that number remain in the same ballpark. There's no question that roughly $290 million dollars towards police alone, is a staggering indication as to why issues such as housing, economic development, and transportation in Charlotte are heavily underfunded, and constantly show up in the single-digit percentile of the city's allocated budget.
The irony in the perceived difference of opinion as it pertains to the mural itself—is that the artist themselves doesn't disagree. Their involvement in painting the mural doesn't make them somehow complicit of not prioritizing the preservation of black lives, or the racially biased logistics that negatively impact black people and minorities in Charlotte. Furthermore, their involvement rather amplifies the demand for justice and equality. By way of their art, the artists operate in a vehicle that drives home the necessary pressure needed to uphold Charlotte leaders on their promises.
It only took three days after the mural was unveiled to magnify the significance of the Black Lives Matter painting and what it represents to those who may have had accountability concerns. Late Friday night, an individual triggered by a message that simply amplifies a societal issue, decided to leave tire marks along the street mural. Its important to note that this individual not only attempted to deface the mural, but also deface a movement that is at the root of many black peoples everyday reality. This hateful act is precisely why such a mural was painted in the first place, and a constant reminder to black people everywhere that there is a sector of the country who find it unreasonable that there is call to action on the preservation of black lives.
There has since been an investigation underway from CMPD regarding the vandalism of the mural, and artists have since returned to the location to retouch damages caused by the tire marks. On the same day the artists returned to fix the mural, the city of Charlotte tweeted out a statement confirming that the street where the mural is located will be temporarily closed until further notice. This will give locals a calming opportunity to visit the mural and digest the messages in each letter without worrying about vehicle traffic.
Subsequently, the mural only becomes performative if we let it. It is the responsibility of the artists, journalists, image activists, educators and community members alike, to remain vigilant in reminding city officials of their elected duties to the people they serve. Two things can be true: you can continue to hold Charlotte city officials accountable by applying pressure in the necessary manner, while also celebrating every artist who put forth honest work to create the mural. We must not let our focused attention on accountability make us lose sight of the artists choice of weapon in the fight. Most importantly, we must not forget that they too, are fighting with us in this traumatic war of racial injustice and Black genocide.
Editors Note: A day after the mural was completed, I personally reached out to each individual artist in attempt to highlight their inspiration, overall message, and emotional connection behind the designs in each letter. Below are photos of each letter of the Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Charlotte, accompanied by an excerpt from each artist about the conceptual inspiration.
BLACK LIVES MATTER - Dammit Wesley @dammit_Wesley
"I use a recurring motif in my work of a crying Storm. If anybody knows anything about the X-Men, it's an allegory of the civil rights movement. Within that you have Storm. She's Black, she's a woman, and she's a mutant. So she's hated 3 times over, to a point that sometimes not even her own teammates or counterparts can understand. She's the perfect vehicle to express how I feel perpetually in America. And if you ever get a chance to read the quote, go check it out. I'm not going to tell you what it is here, I want you to run into the street and go feel that personally." (Quote courtesy of simplisticphobia/IGTV)
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Dakotah Aiyanna @dakotahaiyanna
"We were randomly given letters and I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew that I was tired in general that week. I always draw flower people because to me, they represent Black people as wildflowers. Initially, this was my way to show women to bloom wherever they are, but to also show how amazing the Black community is at adapting to any situation. It’s heartbreaking, but they cannot get rid of us no matter how hard they try because we will grow regardless of the obstacles or where we are. If you are familiar with wildflowers (or what some would call weeds), they sprout like wildfire, and literally multiply when you try to kill them."
"Ty and Myself worked on the first A in BLACK. We went with the design of the Black woman and the Black sheep. We wanted to represent the Black voice with the black sheep. The Black sheep is often misrepresented, unheard, and regarded as odd or often stereotyped. But the wool of the black sheep is just as warm, and just as useful. This is why we drew the Black woman because in many ways, she is treated the same as the black sheep."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Abel Jackson @artbyabel
"In my design I want to highlight the power of the Black Lives Matter movement. I used a silhouette of Tommie Smith, who raised his fist for human rights during the '68 Olympics. He was highly criticized, but now the fight for equality is being illuminated, that's why his fist is surrounded by the sun."
BLACK LIVES MATTER - Garrison Gist @2gzandcountin
"The ultimate meaning behind my piece was for it to be a metaphor for our generation. When you think of Deadpool in the Marvel comics, he is one of the more outspoken, radical, and rebellious superhero characters who challenges the norm and pushes the boundaries. When you liken that to our generation, we are doing the same thing. We are being radical, rebellious and outspoken with the riots and protests. We are using our voices to make sure we're heard and trying to get the ball rolling on seeing some of the changes we want to happen in real time. The Easter egg is also an ode to the Deadpool comic, who is known to be pansexual or bisexual. So with June being pride month, I wanted to honor the LGBTQ community, who we can't forget are also a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Easter egg was my way to honor them and make sure they weren't lost in this movement."
"Given the letter L, we took the opportunity to speak up about the Afro Latinx communities in America and how they are also impacted by the injustices of this country. We are Latinx and we believe that as immigrants we need to support the movement because until Black Lives Matter—no immigrant, refugee or Native American will ever matter here. Being Black is a death sentence in this country, and it needs to stop now."
"Truly humbled and honored to be a part of the Black Lives Matter mural in Charlotte. The organizers had 48 hours to put this together and we had less than a day to paint each of our respective letters. Shout out to Sam Guzzie and Dammit Wesley for putting this together. The result speaks for itself. My letter was “I” in LIVES. The piece is called, “Hidden Figures”, an ode to the book/movie, and a play on words because I have a hidden message that you need to decipher. The content itself has nothing to do with the book/movie, but since I was using code I wanted to highlight the book/movie with a play on words. Good luck deciphering."
Franklin: "For the letter V I wanted to keep things simple so the message can be clear. I wanted Black Lives Matter to be the center theme, but to also reinforce Girl Power. As a father of a 4 year old Black girl, I wanted her and other little Black girls to be represented and inspired. A lot of what she's into these days (princesses) does not reflect an image of her, so I want to do my part in changing that by creating the representation I want to see more of. It was an honor to be involved."
Lo’Vonia: "I loved working with Franklin because we both enjoy line work. My interpretation/inspiration of the piece is all about our future. Our future is our children and they must be represented, always. No more feeling like the “other”, or less than. No more seeing only one color. The future is female, and I love that it is a little Black girl holding her fist high standing strong. Love is strength. Love is the power to defeat hate. She’s our future and she is love."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Kiana Mui @Kmuiii
"The inspiration found in all of my art pieces go back to Anime. Anime has always been a part of my life and will continue to help inspire me to create more wonderful works of art. Another inspiration of mine during this project was to set an example for the BLM movement, as well as opening the eyes of those who continue to say All lives matter— and understand how insensitive it to use it against the BLM movement. I will continue to use my art to inspire others in all forms."
"I wanted a clean propaganda style design, so I used red black and white for a revolutionary style color scheme and the design includes an indigenous face of a black kid. I also would like to give credit to Jason Woodberry on assisting."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Georgie Nakima @gardenofjourney
"My style is highly inspired by the African and Indigenous diaspora. Everything from the geometric patterns, color scheme, and textile all breathes into the fabric of time. It is both minimal and complex, as well as something that I wanted to represent as the rhythms and contrasts of my ancestors. I used bold shapes and colors so that the details would hold up in aerial shots taken from a distance, but still hold value up close. The colors I used were symbolic: Red, for the Blood. Black, for the people, Green for the land, Gold for the wealth, and Blue for the water—which is the source of life that connects us all."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Matthew Clayburn @mathewclayburn
"The inspiration for my piece comes from a need to express how important coming together is. Letting people know that they don’t stand alone in how they feel. We have to support one another through times like this because we are able to be the change we want to see. Everyone has a role. Just find it, flex it, and continue to make change."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- Frankie Zombie @frankie.zombie_
"My letter was inspired by a pop art aesthetic that has become one of my signature styles. The origins of the style come from my child hood. As a kid growing up in Bronx, New York, i'd spend hours at a time in my room just daydreaming and looking out the window. At the time I had a love for the color pallets in the "Jetsons" cartoon, so i'd watch the cartoon all of the time just on strength of the crazy color pop in the show. I then started to get a bit curious and noticed that in the cartoon you didn't see much diversity in skin tones, so my curiosity led me to ask myself why the cartoon was lacking people of color. What I then started to do was go back and start daydreaming in my room of the cartoon, but only this time i'd daydream and make up characters to fit the scenes. I created black people, Spanish people, Native Americans, Arab culture etc, simply because these were the people I would see in my neighborhood on a regular basis--and because i figured the cartoon would be way more fly with several cultures being included lol. Now each piece I create brings people together for conversations and understanding of each others culture for a bigger purpose of love."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- CHD:WCK @chdwckart
"The written message in my design is a personal slogan that reads, “THERE IS NO CHANGE WITHOUT DISRUPTION”. The slogan means change cannot come without disrupting what is habitual or status quo. Also, “BLACK LIVES MATTER”. The crown is from the logo of Charlotte, representing the city officials who supported this project, yet still have some significant changes to make. I believe the city will hear the voices of the people and move in the right direction. The other symbol is representation of those who have been on the frontlines protesting and bringing visibility to this movement."
BLACK LIVES MATTER- John Hairston Jr. @jagolactus_
"For my letter, I pointed my focus on the future generation. I have no little ones as of yet, but I think about the innocence of my childhood when addressing prejudice, hatred, racism, classism, and all Isms. I often think about how I lived without fear. The police were our friends and Mcgruff the Crime Dog was looking out for our best interests. There was brutality in the civil rights movement, but that was in the day and age that racism existed. “Dr. King abolished that, right?!” It wasn’t until the Rodney King beating that I realized that the hardest pill for me to swallow was that I thought as a society that we would have made more progress than this. It’s a slow process, but there’s motion in a brighter direction. So, I would encourage them to continue on and learn from our mistakes."
BLACK LIVES MATTER - Dari Calamari @daricalamari
"As an abstract artist, my work is always open for interpretation. My aim is to captivate the eyes with color and lines, movement and flow, causing the viewer to feel, reflect and make sense of whatever it is they see. Whether it brings out memories of fire, warmth, the sun, butterfly wings or something else entirely, all interpretations are valid as each person has their personal view on what my work looks like to them. I’m simply the vehicle for it to come out of. My letter is the ending of an impactful mural that symbolizes the setting of one phase leading the emergence of another. A collective shift into a new day where true compassion and love for each other radiates from our core."
Jon Olangi is a senior editor and writer at TTT Media, where he covers culture.