As a teenager writing graffiti in the 1990s, Cedric Douglas made the streets of Boston his own. He’s still making art for the streets, memorializing Black men who have died there.
As a graffiti artist, Douglas said, “there’s a whole different relationship you have with the city and the outside environment. And a lot of these people were killed in the street.”
This summer, protesters have been using the artist’s “Tools of Protest” caution tape emblazoned with the last words of victims of police violence — “I CAN’T BREATHE,” “DON’T SHOOT,” and others.
“People use it as a barrier. It’s in protest to separate themselves from law enforcement,” said Douglas, now 42.
Douglas came up with the idea after the summer of 2014. That July, Eric Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe” as police officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y. Protesters said Michael Brown’s last words were “Don’t shoot” before police officer Darren Wilson killed him three weeks later in Ferguson, Mo.
After George Floyd died echoing Garner’s words in Minneapolis last June, Douglas’s caution tape went viral. Protesters brandishing it made the Globe’s front page. Getty Images picked up another image, and HuffPost ranked it on a list of protest signs. The tape appeared in one of Joe Kennedy’s campaign ads.
Douglas partnered with Boston nonprofit Arts Connect International and started distributing the tape. He has shipped rolls to Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, New York, Portland, and cities around New England. In Boston, he takes rolls and scissors to protests.
“We’ll hand someone an end and cut it and cut it and cut it,” Douglas said. “People are just grabbing it.”
Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, an artist, activist, and executive director of the nonprofit Transformative Culture Project, which creates economic opportunities for artists, used the “I CAN’T BREATHE” tape to protest the demolition of the Nelson Mandela mural in Roxbury in July.
“It’s how I felt when I saw it,” said Robinson-Goodnight of the unexpected destruction of a beloved landmark. “I wrapped myself in the tape and wrapped it along the fence as well.”
She’s used it more than once. “People love it. People read it. It says something,” she said.
“Tools of Protest” is one part of Douglas’s “Street Memorial Project,” which honors Black people who have died, often at the hands of police. Others include the “Rose Memorial,” for which Douglas zip-tied red roses to tags enumerating, picturing, and detailing the stories of Black lives lost.
“A rose is alive, and then it dies,” Douglas said. “We’d hand them out on the train, as memorials to represent someone who was alive, who is no longer with us.”
Then there are his street signs marking spots where Black men have died. It started in memory of his uncle, Daniel Edwards, his mentor as a street artist, who died of a heart condition.
Douglas took an old Tow Zone sign and altered it with Edwards’s graffiti name to read “Devs Zone.” He installed it at the site where Edwards died. He made one for Odin Lloyd, murdered by former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez in North Attleborough in 2013. Another sign went up for Terrence Coleman, a mentally ill Black man shot and killed in the South End by Boston police officer Garrett Boyle in 2016.
“I want to put up a constant reminder,” Douglas said.
Memorials are freighted with grief. For his newest effort, Douglas said, “I’m thinking about celebrating people that are alive, still with us. The opposite of the work I’ve been doing.”
The artist recently went to Christopher Columbus Park in the North End, where in June the Columbus statue was beheaded by protesters and then removed as officials consider its future.
He mounted a foam figure atop the statue’s empty base and projected faces of ordinary people onto it, which he captured on video.
“A lot of monuments glorify war, or glorify politics,” he said. “How can we glorify people who are underrepresented?”
Back in his days as a graffiti artist, Douglas dodged the law. He was even arrested once. Today, making art out on the street, he’s still wary, and not just of police.
“Being an artist and being Black, I’ve never been so afraid in my life to be putting up the art,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not anti-police. There are people on both sides that have such strong feelings.”
Still, he’s not going to stop. “Doing this work is an immediate thing that needs to happen,” he said. “But I am more cautious.”
To order “Tools of Protest” caution tape, leave a message at www.streetmemorialsproject.com.