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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
“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 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.
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.”