By Yasmeen Persaud | Jan. 29, 2021
Artist Konstance Patton’s phone buzzed loudly amid the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. “Hey, they’re painting,” texted one of her friends, referring to artists who were expressing their feelings on street walls.
For artists like Patton, the idea was to turn the pain into something beautiful, hopeful. “A lot is hardcore and a lot is hard to digest, and it’s really complicated right now,” Patton said.
The death of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked a period of social unrest across the United States, including in New York City. Because of riots and instances of looting, many businesses boarded up storefronts, which then were turned into canvases for street artists in neighborhoods like SoHo.
Some artists described that they paid for supplies out of their own pockets and weren’t paid for their work. “Thankfully, slowly I’ve been able to get some particular commissions, particularly when we make murals on canvas, most stuff like that, I feel like slowly itself it has been growing,” said muralist Manuel Alejandro Pulla.
Pulla painted his first mural in SoHo after serving as an active protestor for the BLM movement. He said artists like him felt moved to act when they saw the stores boarded up. “It looked very ugly and it looked like it was an abandoned city,” he said.
Maxi Cohen, a 49-year SoHo resident, artist and filmmaker, is the organizer of Art2Heart, an organization that invited artists to paint and provided them supplies and food.
“I feel like people were painting what was in their hearts, both prayers and protests,” Cohen said.
In the neighborhood, Cohen said the reaction was mostly positive. She recalls only one resident who expressed opposition to the paintings.
Today SoHo is home to many boutiques and fancy stores, but it used to be an artsy neighborhood. In the 70s, many artists moved to the area looking for cheap rent at loft-like spaces, where they could live and work. Brandon Zwagerman of the SoHo Broadway Initiative said he thought about those times when he found himself working with building owners to save the plywood boards that artists painted on. He wanted to preserve a memory for the neighborhood and artists to hold onto.
“It was reminiscent of the grassroots art energy SoHo saw in previous decades,” he said. He said local residents and artists enjoyed the sudden infusion of art on the streets. “Some described it as an outdoor art gallery,” he added.
Racial justice is a topic many Americans are concerned with. A June 2020 Pew Research report said that “about seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say they have had conversations with family or friends about issues related to race or racial equality in the last month.”
Baruch College student Francely Flores believes that these artists are inspiring deeper conversations.
“I feel like this is reclaiming our art space and making the statement that our voices do matter during the movement and this is everybody’s fight and not just one person’s fight and there’s space for everybody to bring their message out there,” she said.
Flores was drawn to photojournalism after the protests. She became more involved in the community and made friends with artists — photographer Josh Pachecho in particular, who too found themselves contending with societal changes as a photojournalist. They said they felt tapped out with photography, but things changed when George Floyd died. “My first instinct was to go out and photograph and document,” they said.
The BLM protests inspired a lot of street art, but there is a long history of mural creation, according to Gregory Snyder, a sociology professor at Baruch College.
“Are there artists who are inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement? Yes, but they were inspired by this movement before George Floyd was murdered, before Breonna Taylor was murdered,” he said.
Snyder says there is a distinction between people making pro-Black art versus Black folks making art. “There are a number of murals and things you see around the city dedicated to those who have passed, or victims to police violence, and then there are a lot of graffiti writers who are spending their quarantine out on the streets with more opportunities to do their graffiti,” he said.
Some artists have even been able to create business out of their BLM-inspired work. Last year, 27-year-old Ikey Ajavon was studying for a master’s degree in England. After the protests, he decided to launch his own Brooklyn-based clothing business geared toward social change, Believe Divergent.
“It’s one thing to watch the movement than have something physical to hold onto,” Ajavon said. He explained his goal is to use a simple message to promote BLM and marginalized groups. Ajavon’s business donates a portion of profits to the BLM movement.
Artist Konstance Patton says street art can offer a respite from “utter devastation.”
“They are places for people to stop in front of, sit for a moment, and feel okay — I think of them as blessing the street.”