An outstanding and unprecedented cohesion of many communities has been on display in cities across the United States this spring and summer as “Black Lives Matter” is painted across the streets in expansive letters. In New York City, where the marches are wide, the speeches are forceful, and the conversations go deep – this panoply of painted colors and patterns is no joke.
The slogan, a rallying cry that is objectionable to some and painfully, obviously necessary to others has been painted in myriad styles across city streets in 8 prominent locations; Brooklyn (2), Staten Island, Harlem, Queens, The Bronx, and Manhattan (2) – making it a mural program that is truly All-City, as the graffiti writers used to say in the 1970s and 80s.
On a serious and joyful day in July, we donned our masks and met up with photographer Martha Cooper to safely shoot and talk with members of the Tats Cru, and a number of other artists, activists, community members, media, and elected leaders along Center Street and Foley Square in the City Hall section of downtown Manhattan to see the installation of one of Manhattan’s two BLM street murals. (The second one is on 5th Avenue in front of Trump “Tower” – a soaring glitzy paean to shallow values and a deep disdain for civic ones, but that is a well-worn critique we’re all tired of). This site is only yards away, a five-minute walk, really, from “a graveyard where historians estimate there may have been as many as 10,000–20,000 burials in what was called the “Negroes Burial Ground” in the 1700s.”
As you scan through these photos taken by Martha we notice the determination in the body language of those involved. The weight of the moment escapes no one this time as police and state violence seem to have tipped the scale this spring and summer in the US. It is as if everyone is awash with layers of history – drawing direct connections to the present in this, a society whose very foundations are built upon enslavement.
Intertwined is a celebration of the struggle, and of the colors that artists can facilitate to help us tell our individual and communal stories as the city proclaims something that wouldn’t be necessary if it were obvious in all our actions and across our societal systems.
“I’m very, very supportive of the arts and I think that the Black Lives Matter movement needs to incorporate the arts, whether it is murals on plywood, or poetry, or prose, or music, or this amazing outdoors public art on the street. People relate to the arts, they can express themselves in a much more dramatic way,” said Gale A. Brewer, Manhattan Borough President.
We wish to thank Martha for sharing her photos with us for this article.
Additional Information and Resources:
The mural was conceived in a partnership with Black Lives Matter of Greater NY and Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. Spearheaded by WXY Studio, the project was supported by a group of architects and allies. Artists installed the mural July 1-3, 2020.
It’s when you have an opportunity to see a piece of art on the street in person. The combination of portraits, graphic design, and text treatments may spring more from the imagination of those in the design fields but up close you can get an appreciation of the warmth and vulnerability of the figures as well. The stories that are told are down to earth, universal, and here for you to bear witness to.