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Three women walking on a sidewalk, a mural next to them reads”Breonna Taylor June 5th” and there’s a painting of Pikachu next to it.
Women walk past murals painted on boarded-up storefronts in downtown Oakland.
Photo by Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

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Once a Sign of Blight, Boarded-Up Windows Provide Canvases for Artistic and Political Expression

Plywood lining U.S. city streets is the backdrop for an urgent era of civic art.

It started out simple enough: “We’re all in this together”; “Please practice social distancing”; “Bodies apart — hearts together.” Shortly after stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, artists, with the permission of business owners, used boarded-up storefronts as canvases for murals nodding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some were decorated with floral motifs, like the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, whose windows now feature sunflowers decked out in yellow, orange, and red hues. Others were cheeky, like this bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a prized commodity during the Covidian era, painted by Charlotte, North Carolina–based artist Darion Fleming. All of them whimsical and cute, bloodless enough to share on Facebook or with conservative family members in a group chat.

But the colorful yet placating messages on these makeshift canvases changed after May 25 following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers. The directives veered away from one pandemic and on to another one, becoming sharper and to the point: “Defund the police,” a rallying crying going above and beyond pacifying sloganeering; “I can’t breathe,” Floyd’s final plea as a cop crushed the life out of him, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, another black man killed by the police; and “Justice for Breonna,” in honor of the 27-year-old black woman police shot and killed as she was lying in her bed. Whether boarded up on account of the pandemic or after being smashed by a brick, the plywood lining U.S. city streets this spring — and many other available surfaces too — has become the ground for this urgent era of civic art.

Los Angeles–based artist Dezcjon painted a mural on Melrose Avenue’s Lawson-Fenning, a luxury furniture store, in remembrance of Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 on June 5.

“Once I saw the space I had to work with, that’s how I imagined it there, using one of my styles of painting,” Dezcjon tells Curbed. “I wanted to do something paying homage to the queen and her story while also spreading awareness and celebrating her birthday.”

The artist recently created a Black Lives Matter piece on Hollywood Boulevard above its famed sidewalk stars, as well as another mural centered on a rose, a recurring theme in his work, inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”

“I wanted to make sure viewers could see the rose still rising and shining bright despite everything going on around it,” he says of the artwork.

In Oakland, residents gathered together in the downtown area and created a public museum on the boarded-up storefronts last week, with messages like “Keep struggling, don’t give up, don’t sell out” and “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people” appearing in bold and bright colors.

Even San Francisco, with its stratospheric rents and rampant gentrification, saw some much-needed messaging hit its hallowed halls. Following a Saturday protest, the jarring yet apt message “Open your mouth for black dick, but keep it closed for black issues” appeared on a plywood-paneled Target façade in the city’s South of Market neighborhood. It was painted over, hastily, by Monday.

Murals of anger and grief, of hope and healing, popped up on storefronts across the globe — from Oakland to Idlib, Syria — with some of them literally spilling onto the streets. Most notably, Washington, D.C.’s Public Works Department, at the behest of Mayor Muriel Bowser, painted “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot-tall yellow letters near the White House, a signal to President Donald Trump, who has helped spread racism in the country since taking office in 2016. Many argued this mural wasn’t nearly enough. (Mayor Bowser, it turns out, was trying to increase police spending in Washington, D.C.) After the massive artwork, created by eight anonymous local artists, dried and garnered headlines across the country, the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter issued a statement calling the “performative street art” mere lip service.

“Fuck the ‘mural,’ change the system,” someone spray-painted near the mural. The widely felt sentiment resulted in activists updating the piece with “Defund the Police” next to the two-block-long artwork.

Similar street murals soon popped up in other major cities, like one in Madison, Wisconsin, that reads “Defund police.” Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis is now emblazoned in pastels with the names of black people killed by police officers. And even Oakland has its own three-block-long Black Lives Matter moment.

Turning a blind eye toward criticism of the performative nature of the Black Lives Matter street murals — which The New Yorker, in its unyielding way, described as “mimetic” and “visual force fields that make us more aware of our bodies in space” — New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will paint Black Lives Matter murals on a street in every borough.

And with that, here are some murals to check out that go above and beyond city-sanctioned gimmickry.

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