Tristan Eaton’s Highland Park mural of MLK was defaced. He repainted Malcolm X
A vandal defaced a Highland Park mural depicting Martin Luther King Jr. with racial slurs this week. But within hours, fresh paint covered the offense, and the image of another civil rights leader filled the spot: Malcolm X, smiling.
For artist Tristan Eaton, who painted both murals onto the coffee shop Café de Leche, the racist attack underscored the work’s importance.
“What I’m painting about is alive and real. It’s not just a static image. It’s not old history. It’s right now, in our neighborhood,” said Eaton, a renowned street artist and designer whose work recently flew into orbit with SpaceX.
Anya Schodorf owns and runs Café de Leche with her husband, Matt. They were excited when Eaton asked for permission to paint Martin Luther King Jr. on the plywood covering their shop’s windows in early June.
“We are an interracial couple, so having Dr. King in spirit at our shop meant a lot to me. He represents everything our family stands for. It’s a mission for us that racism gets eliminated from this planet,” Anya Schodorf said.
When anti-racist demonstrations following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd came to Highland Park, protesters — Eaton among them — stopped at the intersection outside the cafe, the artist said. There, the King mural watched on as the crowd knelt to honor Floyd.
“It was a big, bold visual cue to the protests that the people in the neighborhood support it and welcome it,” Eaton said.
As the coffee shop reopened, the owners fixed the plywood mural to the side of their building to show continued support for the movement. Before sunrise Monday, a woman smeared white paint onto King’s face and scrawled anti-Black slurs onto the mural, security footage shows.
Anya Schodorf, who was born in Nicaragua and has lived in the U.S. for 31 years, said that when she went to buy the plywood when protests first started, two women in a passing car harassed her with racist threats and expletives.
“It felt like that when I saw the mural destroyed. It felt like they came after me, that they followed through with their threats. I was brokenhearted,” she said.
The Schodorfs immediately went to their shop to cover up the slurs and figure out what happened as soon as an early arriving barista alerted them. They filed a police report, and an investigation into the vandalism is ongoing.
Eaton said he had been watching James Baldwin’s film “I Am Not Your Negro” that morning when an image of Malcolm X caught his attention. He paused the movie to take a picture. Hours later, he knew what to do when he heard the mural had been defaced.
“I canceled my plans and drove back down there,” he said.
Eaton, a Highland Park resident whose art studio is on the same street as the cafe, spray painted freehand the image of Malcom X from the movie.
“It was pretty much saying, ‘Here you go. In your face, with love.’ He refused to back down to hate,” Anya Schodorf said. She was moved to tears as Eaton painted, she added.
A woman in a car similar to the one captured in security footage harassed Eaton as he worked on the second piece, Anya Schodorf said. If the mural is defaced again, she’ll welcome a new face onto the walls of her coffee shop, which she calls her “American dream.”
“We cannot back down. We need to keep pushing forward. We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Anya Schodorf said.
Eaton’s on standby, too. He said he has plenty of paint and an idea of who he’d like to capture next.
“Angela Davis, Jame Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Tupac, Ice-T, Ice Cube. There are so many people I want to paint. The list goes on and on because the list of Black people that have generated and contributed to the culture we love is endless,” Eaton said. “If it’s defaced again, I will wake up early, have a cup of coffee and then paint all day.”
He noted that there aren’t many murals in Highland Park and that Chicano wall art there has long been whitewashed. Eaton hopes that those who don’t know much about Malcolm X will learn more about the leader after seeing the new mural and that those who are familiar will feel emboldened and proud that he would be celebrated.
“Public art can uplift people, give them a sense of identity, give them a sense of pride in their neighborhood,” Eaton said. “You can elevate a conversation and bring a message to the world on the wings of beauty that can’t be done in words or other mediums. You can take something and give it more power, more weight, just by painting a neighborhood.”
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