Across L.A., Black Lives Matter murals appear like billboards for justice
When Jamie Masada decided to offer his vacant lot as the site for a Black Lives Matter mural, he flashed back to a car ride he had taken 38 years earlier.
The founder and owner of Hollywood’s Laugh Factory, Masada was cruising around L.A. in a flashy Mercedes-Benz with Black comedy legends Richard Pryor and Shirley Hemphill. Paul Mooney was behind the wheel. Within minutes, Mooney was pulled over by police officers in Beverly Hills for allegedly swerving.
Before returning to the comedy club, Mooney was pulled over twice more. Each time, the cops said he had been swerving — something Masada said was not true. The final time they were stopped, an officer called for backup and everyone was pulled out of the car and searched, Masada recalled.
“Today, today, I hear from Black comedians that they get stopped” around Los Angeles for “swerving,” said Masada, 60.
When George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis police custody in May, Masada thought: “I have to do something about it.”
Next to his club, he had a billboard. He let five artists — Alexandra Allie Belisle, Amanda Ferrell Hale, Noah Humes, PeQue Brown and Shplinton — paint a 148-foot-long mural in honor of a movement reinvigorated by Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
“Murals and public art are often the most powerful and the most misunderstood forms of creating and maintaining change,” said Georgia Van Cuylenburg, founder and executive director of Arts Bridging the Gap, which organized the Laugh Factory mural. It was funded by L.A. City Councilman David Ryu.
“Someone can get behind a movement and then something else happens, and they move on to that. Art doesn’t let you forget, it brings people forward into a conversation.”
Art, she said, can sustain a movement’s momentum by constantly reminding people “of where we’ve been and where we don’t want to go again.”
In many ways, L.A. is a natural for mural-gazing. Often traffic-choked, its slow-moving crawl can create a kind of art gallery for murals along busy streets.
People in L.A. get so caught up in their day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget about these issues, said Eric Bjorgum, president of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. But they spend so much time driving, seeing murals on freeways and streets, that the art sparks conversations.
Murals are like billboards with a social justice bent. Unlike billboards, the idea they’re selling appeals to the conscience, not the wallet.
Public art “is something to remind people of stuff over and over again,” Bjorgum said. “It preserves something and keeps it from being lost.”
Yet time poses an existential threat to murals. The paint used, its exposure to exhaust and the sun, vandalism, whether the art is on private or public land, the controversy it arouses, the artist’s renown — all of these things can factor into its life span, Bjorgum said.
Some of the oldest murals in L.A. are coming up on 40 or 50 years, but their average life is “usually two to five years before anything might happen. It really depends on what the public likes, too; what they want to preserve,” he said.
Months ago, along famed Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, the streets were eerily quiet. Boarded-up shops and restaurants bore portraits of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and other Black people who died at the hands of law enforcement.
The portraits were the work of Jules Muck, a Venice artist known as MuckRock. Signs that read “Black owned” and “POC owned” were posted outside businesses to deter a small number of people among the mostly peaceful protesters from breaking in.
By mid-July, most of the portraits were gone. The signs were removed; a plywood board scrawled with Floyd’s last words — “I can’t breathe” among them — was stored in a basement. Most of the shops and restaurants had reopened.
“This phenomenon of massive public art that pops up really fast is pretty new,” Bjorgum said. “I don’t think that happened in the past. I would assume it’s a proliferation of spray paint art and also graffiti culture being more accepted. It’ll be interesting to see which ones last and which ones don’t.”
The killing of Taylor shook artist and teacher PeQue Brown, 54, who painted the slain woman’s image in the Laugh Factory mural.
Taylor, a Black woman who worked as an emergency medical technician, was killed in March when Louisville police, executing a search warrant, broke down her apartmentdoor and shot her eight times.
“I spent seven years as a healthcare professional, specifically as an EMT, so I recognize the grueling toll it can take on one’s body and psyche,” Brown said. It’s an experience he relates to.
But Brown wanted to participate in the mural for other reasons, too. “I identify with the situation, being African American, and knowing all the trials and tribulations that people of color have gone through ... so it was definitely something I thought was important for me to get involved in,” he said.
When Alexandra Allie Belisle, 22, was approached to contribute to the Black Lives Matter mural outside the comedy club, she also wanted to honor Black women like Taylor. Often, in conversations about injustice and racism, “Black women get overlooked,” said Belisle, a student and artist who painted a masked protester holding up a sign that reads: “Protect Black Women.”
When violence related to law enforcement happens to women of color, “it doesn’t get the same type of outrage and attention,” she said. “It’s hard enough to be a woman, but we’re also Black and that’s a whole other challenge in itself.”
Belisle said art allows her to express these conflicts.
“It communicates how people are feeling ... public art and murals are a way for people to take ownership of their communities,” she said. “When they’re removed, it takes away from the identity of an area.”
For lettering artist Alfonso Garcia, his mural on North Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood was about supporting the movement and his Black friends.
Three days and about 40 hours later, Garcia, 27, had painted more than 500 names of victims of police brutality from 2016 to 2020. “And I didn’t even have enough space to continue” adding more, he said. On the wall are also the hashtags “Say their names” and “Black Lives Matter.”
He wanted to elevate their message, he said. “I wanted to grab people’s attention and make them stop to look at the mural.”
And that he did.
A woman who was driving by stopped when she saw Garcia painting the mural. “She’s reading all these names and all of a sudden she starts tearing up ... and she seems very happy,” he recalled. She pointed to a name on the wall: Alton Sterling, her nephew.
“She started telling us how he used to be a very good, genuine [person] who would sell CDs on a street corner” before his altercation with Louisiana police. In July 2016, two white police officers in Baton Rouge fatally shot Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man.
The woman’s response and joy moved Garcia. “That alone is the reward,” he said.
Shane Grammer, a 48-year-old multidisciplinary artist, has been doing street graffiti since he was 19. He knows his mural honoring Floyd on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood will eventually be removed.
“You just know that when you do a mural, you have to get video footage and you have to get your photos that day, as soon as you’re done, because you just never know” what will happen to it, he said.
That was true even when he painted a series of murals to memorialize the more than 80 victims of the 2018 Camp fire in Paradise, Calif. On burnt cars, chimneys and what remained of people’s homes, Grammer painted more than a dozen murals.
Grammer said some Paradise residents “identified those murals as a symbol of hope during such a devastating time,” he said. “Those murals really helped people.”
He said he hopes the mural he painted of Floyd has the same effect.
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