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Black Lives Matter movement street art, murals see a surge in Chicago post-George Floyd

More have popped up since the killing in Minneapolis of the Black man by a white cop. One artist says the aim is ‘using this as a time for change and doing that through art.’

Looming above the CTA Blue Line L tracks in Wicker Park is an “I AM A MAN” mural inspired by a 1968 photograph from a Memphis memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Looming above the CTA Blue Line L tracks in Wicker Park is an “I AM A MAN” mural inspired by a 1968 photograph from a Memphis memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Two months after Chicago and the nation erupted in protest of George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis, a growing number of signs of the Black Lives Matter movement can be found around Chicago in the form of murals and street art.

Some memorialize the movement on wooden boards outside closed stores. Others pay tribute more prominently, through expansive murals.

In Wicker Park, near the CTA Blue Line L tracks, there’s a mural of a young Black man holding a sign reading “I AM A MAN.” The painting, completed in late June, recreates a 1968 photo from a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. The slogan is from a two-month strike by sanitation workers in Memphis to demand proper treatment. King spent his final days with the striking workers before his assassination.

The “I AM A MAN” mural as seen from a CTA Blue Line L train in Wicker Park. The painting is based on a 1968 image of a man mourning at a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The “I AM A MAN” mural as seen from a CTA Blue Line L train in Wicker Park. The painting is based on a 1968 image of a man mourning at a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Erica Contreras

“We’re having all of these heightened conversations about civil rights and humanitarian rights causes all over the world at the moment,” says artist Darius Dennis, who headed the project. “It’s an opportunity to paint really big paintings — and maybe these are the things that should have been included in history books.”

Darius Dennis, 36, headed the “I AM A MAN” mural project in Wicker Park. He grew up in Chicago and now splits his time between Lake View and New York.
Darius Dennis, 36, headed the “I AM A MAN” mural project in Wicker Park. He grew up in Chicago and now splits his time between Lake View and New York.
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“I AM A MAN” was done by Dennis, 36, Robin Alcantara, 28, Ephraim Gebre, 21, and Jared Diaz, 25. The artists work together at a billboard company in Brooklyn.

Robin Alcantara and Darius Dennis work on the “I AM A MAN” mural in Wicker Park, recreating a 1968 photo from a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Robin Alcantara and Darius Dennis work on the “I AM A MAN” mural in Wicker Park, recreating a 1968 photo from a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
CJ Cruz

Diaz, who lives in Queens and describes himself as a “Brown man,” says that even a glance at the news or social media reminds him of social inequality and of threats to people of color. He says the Wicker Park mural challenges people to own their role in fighting injustice.

“It feels very empowering and healing,” Diaz says. “To be able to replace some of that space with energy that says, ‘It doesn't matter because we’re going to do something better,’ that’s healing.”

Jared Diaz (from left), Darius Dennis, Robin Alcantara (hidden) and Ephraim Gebre work on the lettering of the “I AM A MAN” mural in Wicker Park.
Jared Diaz (from left), Darius Dennis, Robin Alcantara (hidden) and Ephraim Gebre work on the lettering of the “I AM A MAN” mural in Wicker Park.
M1N6U5 media

The artists envision a four-part “I AM” series of paintings to “bring cultural equity back to neighborhoods that need it,” according to Dennis, a Chicago native who now divides his time between Lake View and New York. He says they’re looking at Humboldt Park for one of the future murals in the series.

The exterior wall of a condo building at 1339 N. Wicker Park Ave. was the canvas for “I AM A MAN.” Colleen Kendall, 36, and Connor Kendall, 35, have lived in the condo for five years. Connor Kendall was at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, and Dennis was at Lake View High School when they became friends. When Dennis asked to use the couple’s building for the mural, they and residents of the three other condo units said yes.

Colleen and Connor Kendall outside their condo complex, which became the canvas for the “I AM A MAN” mural. Connor Kendall and artist Darius Dennis have been friends since high school.
Colleen and Connor Kendall outside their condo complex, which became the canvas for the “I AM A MAN” mural. Connor Kendall and artist Darius Dennis have been friends since high school.
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“We hope the work serves as a reminder to the thousands of people taking the CTA every day of the problems still rampant today,” Connor Kendall says. “As I turn the corner driving home each day, I have an immense amount of pride that we have some part of the messaging.”

Recent protests also have inspired shorter-term street art across the city. As business owners put up wooden boards to protect their stores from looting and vandalism in the unrest that followed Floyd’s death, the boards became artists’ canvases.

On the walls of what used to be Leon’s Bar-B-Q at 79th Street and Cornell Avenue is a “Black and Brown Unity” mural, calling for peace and cooperation between Black and Latino communities, according to Rahmaan Statik, 39, a South Loop street artist who worked on the project.

A group of street artists painted this “Black and Brown Unity” mural on the South Side after another unity mural in Pilsen was painted over within hours of being completed.
A group of street artists painted this “Black and Brown Unity” mural on the South Side after another unity mural in Pilsen was painted over within hours of being completed.
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A street artist who goes by the name “Dred Ske” worked on the original “Black and Brown Unity” mural in Pilsen before it was covered over with white paint.
A street artist who goes by the name “Dred Ske” worked on the original “Black and Brown Unity” mural in Pilsen before it was covered over with white paint.
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On boards outside Epoch Studio Salon in Wicker Park is a famous quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., painted by the street artist who goes by the name “Nzyme,” 22.
On boards outside Epoch Studio Salon in Wicker Park is a famous quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., painted by the street artist who goes by the name “Nzyme,” 22.
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A street artist who goes by the name “Dred Ske” — who’s 38 and lives near Marquette Park on the South Side and worked on the unity mural with Statik — also painted “Black Lives Matter” above images of colorful fists on wooden boards at Ashland and Chicago avenues in West Town.

Artist Dred Ske painted this “Black Lives Matter” mural on wooden boards at Ashland and Chicago avenues in West Town.
Artist Dred Ske painted this “Black Lives Matter” mural on wooden boards at Ashland and Chicago avenues in West Town.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

In the West Loop, artist Jenny Vyas, 44, partnered with Soul City Church to paint “Be the Bridge,” inspired by a book about racial reconciliation the church community is reading.

Jenny Vyas painted this mural, titled “Be the Bridge,” outside Soul City Church in the West Loop, inspired by a book by Latasha Morrison.
Jenny Vyas painted this mural, titled “Be the Bridge,” outside Soul City Church in the West Loop, inspired by a book by Latasha Morrison.
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A street artist who goes by the name “Nick Apple,” 30, from Logan Square, painted a portrait outside Papa Cenar in Wicker Park of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Georgia in February. Apple also has done other images in the same area of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were killed by police, and Oluwatoyin Salau, killed in Florida.
A street artist who goes by the name “Nick Apple,” 30, from Logan Square, painted a portrait outside Papa Cenar in Wicker Park of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Georgia in February. Apple also has done other images in the same area of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were killed by police, and Oluwatoyin Salau, killed in Florida.
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The street art is inherently temporary — painted over, torn down or removed when businesses reopen and take down the wooden boards. Newly launched Sounding Boards Chicago, a mural initiative aiming to give the artwork a longer life, is working to collect the boards as businesses reopen. It plans to create an exhibit of Black Lives Matter street art to be “permanently appreciated by the public,” according to Christina Brown, who cofounded Sounding Boards.

“It’s amplifying the voices of minorities,” says Brown, 35, of Avondale. “The message we’re really trying to send is just coming together and having this unification in Chicago, using this as a time for change and doing that through art.”

Street artist Damon Lamar Reed, 42, of Woodlawn, in front of his mural “If you don’t break the chain, then who will?” outside Wayward in Wicker Park. In it, Reed portrays systemic racism as a chain on Black people.
Street artist Damon Lamar Reed, 42, of Woodlawn, in front of his mural “If you don’t break the chain, then who will?” outside Wayward in Wicker Park. In it, Reed portrays systemic racism as a chain on Black people.
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A street artist who goes by the name “Nzyme” painted the phrase “Peace & Love” outside Smile Science Chicago in Wicker Park following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
A street artist who goes by the name “Nzyme” painted the phrase “Peace & Love” outside Smile Science Chicago in Wicker Park following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
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Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals
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