After Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds May 25, Black Lives Matter protests erupted in every state across the nation.
In Madison, the first few days of these protests, while overwhelmingly peaceful, did result in broken windows up and down State St. Businesses later boarded them up, creating unlikely canvases for local artists.
Walk down State St. now, and nearly every window displays a mural with a message, from the Black Lives Matter fist insignia to portraits of Floyd, Tony Robinson, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by cops. Others still feature flowers, quotes and abstract designs.
The City of Madison commissioned these murals, reaching out to local artists of color and reserving spaces for them to share their art. The artists worked for hours, days, some even multiple days in 80-degree and upwards heat with their teams.
City council, local police discuss police reform, reactions to Minneapolis police disbandment announcementFollowing the Minneapolis City Council’s announcement of their intent to dismantle the city’s police force on Sunday, the Madison Common Read…
For Afro-Latina artist and University of Wisconsin graduate Sirena Flores, her work is a form of resistance, which she highlighted in her mural outside Vom Fass, which reads, “Our existence is resistance,” in white, with monarch butterflies around the letters. Flores said the butterflies represent migration in Latino culture, as their community has had to migrate to escape white supremacy.
“Being black, it’s not just a skin color, right?” Flores said. “So when we don’t get proper treatment at the doctor’s, or when we don’t get proper nourishment for our body, we feel that in our body. So the fact that my body exists, and is living, and is breathing, and I’m trying to keep my body strong, that in itself [is resistance]. Police, in my opinion, are trying to commit a modern-day genocide, and the fact that I’m alive and I’m breathing is resistance.”
Flores also painted a graduation portrait of Tony Robinson a block down from the Capitol. In 2015, Madison police officer Matt Kenny killed Robinson in a Williamson St. apartment. He was 19 years old.
Flores said she had been friends with Robinson when they were kids, and she wanted to honor him with her art as a memorial.
“I did that so that people can know Tony’s name,” Flores said. “And so that our friends and our family can also have a space to still feel Tony and take pictures with him.”
Madison-based artist Brooklyn Doby recently graduated from Edgewood College with a degree in art therapy. She and her team, Synovia Knox and Ciara Nash, painted three Black portraits outside Campus Ink, and Doby and Nash painted another mural by Short Stack Eatery with the quote, “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Protesters march for Black queer, trans lives, celebrate Pride monthProtesters marched in support of Black, queer and trans people. Celebrating as a community with dance performances during Friday’s protest Read…
Doby said since they wanted to start painting the Campus Ink boards as soon as they could, they didn’t even have a finished design when they started the mural, but it all came together. Doby said the three of them incorporated their individual styles together.
To Doby, the mural proved an opportunity to speak up and amplify voices that often aren’t heard.
“It was like an opportunity for us to finally take up space that we’d never been given before, as Black people,” Doby said. “The way I know how to speak and make my voice heard is through art. So I feel that it’s been rewarding to make myself seen and heard through my craft.”
Madison-based street artist Jay Michael painted the line-art mural outside The Chocolate Shoppe with the quote “the whole world is watching.” He and his partner, Ryan Hartman, also painted a portrait of Bob Marley outside Coldstone Creamery.
Michael said the inspiration for his line-art piece came from an interview with Will Smith who said racism isn’t getting worse right now — it’s just getting recorded. Michael’s entire piece is just one line, and it details a variety of faces. Through his art, he hopes to communicate a message of equal rights.
“There are artists who are trying to communicate the message of love and equality for all,” Michael said. “Right now, the main focus is Black lives. And we don’t want to deter from that or distract ourselves from the cause. We know that all lives matter, but we want to make sure that everybody knows that, that everybody should be loved equally and everybody should have the same equal rights and everybody should respect each other.”
Michael said he’s impressed with everyone who put their regular art careers on hold to paint these murals, and urged everyone to check out all the murals up and down State, as well as around the Capitol.
Flores said one of the most rewarding parts about the experience has been the conversations it’s generated from those walking by, whether they’re educational or supportive or healing-based conversations.
“What am I doing, if I’m not having conversations, if I’m not building those bridges, if I’m not allowing my voice to be heard?” Flores said. “So I feel like some of the most rewarding parts are having conversations, people stopping to ask about it, or friends, me and Tony’s friends stopping and crying and hugging me, and just feeling something.”
Both Flores and Doby said they think it’s important to rebuild and recreate in spaces of destruction. Flores said rebuilding is a major theme of the Black Lives Matter movement — getting rid of one system and rebuilding a better one.
When Flores got to her panel to paint the “existence is resistance” piece, someone had already written “No Pigs” in spray paint. Flores said she loved that message, and though she ended up painting over it, she left some blank space to see parts of the letters.
“If we’re going to destroy, we need to recreate,” Flores said. “I think that’s a metaphor for the overall system. If we’re going to destroy, we need to recreate. So if we are against this system … let’s recreate a new one.”