A young boy, painted against a bright yellow wall, beats a red bongo with two enormous drumsticks (of the poultry sort). With rich colors and a bold style, he demands attention — just like the drummer boy of legend who fearlessly marched into battle unarmed.
With “Drummer Boy,” muralist Cameron Teleau wanted to embody a sense of passionate Black leadership while also promoting Wingz & Tingz restaurant, specifically the location on Blue Hill Avenue. Teleau’s artwork also serves as a nice entrée to A Rebel Mural, a new project that teams local artists of color with immigrant-owned businesses in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.
A Rebel Mural is the first public mural project from the grassroots nonprofit Rebel Cause. Shakera Bramwell, 30, cofounded the organization in 2016 with the goal of helping residents of Black, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities around Boston. As a Jamaican immigrant who was at one point undocumented and unhoused, Bramwell felt the drive to create a local-first support system. ”I had my bed, a big white board, and a desk and I said I was going to build something,” they said in a recent interview.
Using art as a tool for transformation is at the core of A Rebel Mural. As a child in Jamaica, Bramwell watched neighbors douse rubber tires with colorful paint before filling them with soil and planting flowers inside. As Boston reopened after the initial round of COVID-19 precautions, Bramwell thought: We can do that on Blue Hill Ave.
A Rebel Mural is starting out by providing six artists of color with compensation, materials, and a platform to share their messages. Artistic director and Rebel Cause board member Thamanaï Jérémie said the program’s selection committee specifically sought out projects with compelling messages. “We were looking at their ideology and their philosophy in terms of activism and community work,” Jérémie said.
Unfortunately, several Rebel Mural finalists’ designs were too politically charged for some local businesses, causing artists to either tweak their visions or look for new collaborations entirely. Cambridge-based Katiana Rodriguez centered her mural design around the overlooked murders of Black and Latinx trans women. But the first store owner Rodriguez was paired with didn’t think it was right for the business. “The mural is a little dark,” Rodriguez allowed in a recent interview. Rebel Cause is still trying to find her a wall.
Cambridge-based artist Valerie Imparato expects a wall sometime in August. Her design isn’t explicitly radical –– it’s a colorful mosaic depicting the numerous roles American society expects from Black women. But it’s still a struggle to find businesses that own their own walls.
According to artist Yesenia Mejia, getting a yes from a business owner isn’t the biggest hurdle. “Honestly, painting a wall in Boston is just a nightmare,” Mejia said in an interview. “It’s really just who owns the wall.”
After some time, Mejia is now collaborating with Michel Soltani, owner of Pikalo, a Dominican restaurant on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. Soltani owns his walls. Together, the two are developing a mural that captures the essence of what Soltani calls “the kitchen and living room of the neighborhood.” Excited to help attract business to Pikalo, Mejia, who lives right down the street, said it’s also validating for neighbors “who can see that, wow, this neighborhood is being cared for and is being adorned with murals.”
Khalid Khidr, an artist based in Chinatown, has just begun painting the exterior wall of Finest Cuts, a barber shop one block from Wingz & Tingz. Khidr’s design showcases that last step of every haircut, when the barber places two fingers under the customer’s chin and lifts to make sure everything is even. “I wanted to capture that moment, what it looks like and how it feels,” Khidr said. “On the surface level it’s just haircuts. But underneath it’s brotherhood, and it’s support, it’s advice, it’s uplift, it’s hygiene.”
The artist known as Sobek is a bit of an outlier for A Rebel Mural. As the only veteran muralist and graffiti artist on the roster, Sobek chose not to partner with a specific business but to put his A Rebel Mural funding toward an event called Healing Through the Arts in Dorchester’s Ripley Playground.
On Juneteenth, Rebel Cause joined forces with Dorchester Art Project, Mass Cultural Council, and Sobek’s own organization, Back Against the Wall, to sponsor the painting of a mural honoring the late Dorchester muralist Dwayne Corey Ross (also known as XEROX). Artists from the community helped Sobek paint. “It was pretty much a memorial service in the form of graffiti,” Sobek said recently. “It was a beautiful thing.”
Colin Kirkland is a writer in Somerville. He can be reached email@example.com and on Twitter @Colinjkirk247.