Artists on the street for Black Lives Matter protests, like any artists during times of upheaval, have two jobs. They frame questions, and they express the beating heart of a movement.
“You can have a political piece in a gallery, but when you show up at a protest, it’s ad hoc, you’re responding to the present moment,” said protest artist Anthony Araujo-Amaral. “You’re trying to present how you feel, or how to fix it.”
Araujo-Amaral, a student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, heeded the call when muralist David Fichter invited young people to his studio to make art for Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Fichter oversees the Mystic River Mural Project, a youth program of the Somerville Arts Council.
The group painted portraits of victims of police violence on lightweight insulation foam to carry to protests. They toted their signs in a march from City Hall Plaza to Boston Common.
“People were surprised,” Araujo-Amaral said. “People had signs with heartfelt slogans. They weren’t expecting a big, visual poster.”
He depicted Fred Hampton, a Black Panther slain in 1969 by Chicago Police at 21. Painted on the back were Hampton’s words: “You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution.”
“I wanted to link the struggle that continues today with the struggles of the ’60s,” Araujo-Amaral said.
Many of the other Mystic River Mural Project portraits — of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more — feature halos. “It shows mourning and respect,” said Araujo-Amaral. “It shows the transcending. They’ve become icons.”
The original design for Sam Okerstrom-Lang and Caleb Hawkins’s large-scale projections featured the faces of Taylor and Floyd, plus text. They screen the portraits onto or near halls of power: the State House, City Hall, the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse.
“It wasn’t until we went to the State House that we decided to use just the face as a symbol of oppression,” Okerstrom-Lang said. Floyd’s face, in particular, has taken on the gravity and weight of Mount Rushmore.
Hawkins and Okerstrom-Lang, of MASARY Studios, an installation art collective, had just finished working on pop-up dance videos for Urbanity Dance, powering projections with a car battery, when the #BLM protests started. They looked at their portable projector and saw an ideal protest tool.
Early on, they tempted fate when they projected Floyd’s face over the front door of Police District A-1′s station house.
“Police gathered by the door, four or five, and one looked up and saw the projection,” Hawkins said. “One fairly large officer came over. We thought he was reaching for the projector. But … he pointed to the wall and said, ‘Man, I love this.’”
The artists ended up having a long conversation with two Black officers. The older one, Hawkins said, “said he’s a Black man first. … He was clearly attuned and understood the problems around George Floyd.”
“It was cathartic for me as a young Black male living through this,” Hawkins added.
Murals of Floyd, Taylor, and others have been slow to appear on Boston walls, even as they’ve sprung up elsewhere, such as in Providence and in Stoneham, where one was defaced last week. Boston street artists are strategizing about painting them, but reserved about sharing details.
In Cambridge, Central Square’s Graffiti Alley is always an open canvas. Last weekend, taggers Brand, Merc, and others painted the alley off of Massachusetts Avenue with Black Lives Matter messages. And last week, the Central Square Business Improvement District commissioned artist Rixy Fz to curate public art over the next month for a project called “Speak Your Piece.”
She’s inviting 18 artists to take on the neighborhood. “Utility boxes, storefront windows, floors, whatever you can put paint on, we’ll make it a space to express,” she said. “It’s about people saying what they have to say and getting paid what they deserve.”
Fz knows protest art is ephemeral, that it comes and goes as quickly in the minds and hearts of the public as it does on the ever-changing walls of Graffiti Alley. Still, she wants today’s protest art to stick.
“It’s super important right now for this art not to be a trend,” she said. “This movement is helping people to be seen. It’s not art for the hashtag. This is a stepping-stone to where we all want to be.”
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.