As thousands of Americans lend their voices to protests, artists are letting their brushes speak of racial reckoning.
They’re coloring streets with the words Black Lives Matter. They’re spray-painting walls with memorial images in rainbow hues. They’re illustrating fists, flowers and faces and sharing them on Instagram. They’re acting on an urge to create, spurred by the pain of George Floyd’s death and the global pandemic.
Although the term that many use for this kind of work, artivism, feels new, the idea that artists also serve as activists and leaders of cultural change has a deep-rooted history.
“Artists have always been at the lead of protest, resistance and hope in Black communities and other marginalized communities across the country,” says Aaron Bryant, the curator of photography and visual culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
As a collective, artists illustrate and impact history. As individuals, they have their own unique stories behind their art.
Here are nine of those stories.
Hiero Veiga, 32, absolutely did not want to be a memorial artist a few weeks ago.
“We see a lot of horrible things happen, and I, myself, am a victim of police brutality,” says Veiga. “I know too many cases.”
But Veiga ran into fellow graffiti artist Thomas “Detour” Evans, who was working on a mural of George Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated under the knee of a white police officer.
Evans, 35, encouraged Veiga’s change of heart.
“We’re the visual historians of current times,” says Evans. “I tell a lot of artists, you have to document what’s happening today. I advocate for more artists to use their work to create messages and talk about what they’re going through in society.”
Veiga, moved by Evans’ words, joined him at the wall. Veiga’s realistic style combined with Evans’ colorful palette made for a breathtaking and breath-giving mural: Their image of Floyd looks as though he’s coming back to life.
The two collaborated on additional vibrant murals and started the crowd-funded project “Spray Their Name,” a movement to beautify walls and honor the memory of Black people across the country.
When Dakotah Aiyanna was teaching herself to draw, her drawings of people had wildflowers for heads, mostly because she wanted to avoid drawing faces. But if you ask her to draw a self portrait today, it will still have a flower head. She connects with that image.
“As a Black woman, I can grow absolutely anywhere,” Aiyanna explains. “I can adapt to any storm, any weather, any changes. In the Black community, that’s something that we’re really good at.”
So when Aiyanna, 25, was asked to contribute the first L in a Black Lives Matter mural made by a group of artists in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina she knew her letter would include a flower person.
It also included plenty of real people: Community members that Aiyanna had never met came out to support her and the other muralists’ work, even getting their hands dirty to scrape off old paint. One family brought a wagon full of snacks and drinks that a young boy hand-delivered to artists.
The communal work environment was a change for Aiyanna, who’s used to quietly creating art on her own. It was also a change for her in that painting the mural with its huge letters felt like a bolder form of activism than she’s practiced before.
“When I say ‘activism,’ people here think of radical expressions. Not everybody responds to that well,” Aiyanna says. “My goal with my art is to not offend, but more so to make you feel it. And if you hate what you feel, I’ve done my job.”
Gracie Pekrul is only 18, so she wasn’t alive during the Rodney King trial and the reaction to the 1992 verdict. But Pekrul lives in Simi Valley, California, where the event took place. She knows the culture of her town has to change, and she wants to be part of the movement toward progress.
At 16, Pekrul participated in March For Our Lives demonstration that supported legislation to prevent gun violence after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. But she felt compelled to do more than march. She made original art: Drawings of the 17 victims, for which she wrote short biographies. It took her more than two weeks, but she didn’t want to forget about the dead.
There are a lot of people to remember.
Pekrul recently shared a portrait of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by police in her apartment. The piece was made on an iPad pro with an Apple pencil, and it shows Breonna glowing, with shiny wavy hair and a blooming purple flower crown. Beyonce is one of many on Instagram who shared the image on the day that would’ve been Taylor’s 27th birthday.
“I knew always that I wanted to do art and I wasn’t sure how that would manifest itself,” Pekrul, who just graduated from high school, says. “When I got into activism, I really felt like there was a moment of, ‘This is my purpose.’”
Stat‘s contribution to BLM mural
In 2017, Teddy Phillips created a free app filled with his bright, color-blocked art called “For the Culture.” It’s a trivia game about Black culture with more than 50,000 downloads in the Google Play store.
“For the Culture” is something Phillips, 31, says a lot. “It’s really for my ancestors. I want to pay homage to them as much as possible.”
That’s why he included the phrase inside the giant “I” in the “Black Lives Matter” street mural in Seattle that leads to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, known as CHAZ.
Kinship and activism go hand-in-hand for Phillips. He wants to follow the example of his grandfather, an activist who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and illustrate everyday heroes like his mother, a nurse. He wants to send a message to the kids where he grew up:
“Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, we were taught to either sell dope, or go to the NBA or NFL,” he says. “Being an artist wasn’t in our path at all. Now I can go back and tell kids, ‘You can be an artist if you want to.’ “
Meghan Malik, 35, and Marjani Abugo, 24, have a particular set of skills. As friends and colleagues at an events design company in Washington, D.C., they know how to get people together for a cause, to partner with local businesses and to turn blank spaces into something spirited.
But for so long, they were stuck at home, not planning any events and mourning the death of George Floyd. Their once-lively city was covered with plywood. It felt dreary and dystopian. They had to do something about it.
“We could use our talents to create a change in our neighborhood,” Abugo realized. “Instead of staying in the house and crying, we could come together and be out using our hands,” Malik agreed.
The women organized a team of volunteers to make murals and partnered with businesses that lent their walls. They worked with a team of artists on paintings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. They stenciled flesh-colored fists beneath the hashtag Black Lives Matter on a boarded up nightclub. They wrote the names of hundreds of Black people who have died, including Denver Smith, the name of a man who was shot in 1972 by police and is also the namesake of a charity foundation they’re supporting.
They know there are people they missed. They hope the names, faces and fists helps to effect positive change, as their hashtag “Cre8Change” emphasizes.
“Our hope is to continue to keep doing this even beyond what’s happening here in DC,” says Malik. “Obviously this is an election season, so we can use this as an opportunity to educate and get people out to vote.”
Nikkolas Smith‘s praying Ahmaud Arbery image
Nikkolas Smith started creating art because he needed the therapy. He was going through a divorce about seven years ago and sketching felt like a necessary practice for coping. So he made weekly art pieces, including an image of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hoodie, which Smith created on Photoshop after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was wearing a hoodie. The image went viral.
Since then, Smith has kept up the artwork, so much so that a year ago he left his job as a Disney Imagineer to become a full-time freelance artist. Smith, 35, a Houston native who lives in Los Angeles, has an evocative style you can’t quite pinpoint, because it varies from pop to impressionistic.
His work includes a sketch of Ahmaud Arbery that was made with violent brushstrokes. Smith painted Arbery’s eyes open at first, then ended up closing them because “it just felt like he was crying out or praying or something. I painted a prayer.”
Another piece that’s part of Smith’s collection is one of himself and his new wife, their hands cradling her pregnant belly.
“There is progress constantly being made,” he says, noting that his wife reminded him that Loving Day, the anniversary of the day the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage, was on June 12. “I want my art to be a reminder of the direction we should be going in.”
Smith says his work shows “a Black person in America isn’t really one-dimensional or stereotypical as he is often portrayed,” he says. “My whole body of artwork is just pieces of me.”
Danielle Coke’s educational illustrations
Danielle Coke, a 25-year-old Atlanta native, realized that she might get more people to stop and hear her if she tried drawing her ideas.
“I’ve always been someone who was outspoken and said the hard things” Coke says. “But maybe more people would be more likely to listen to what I have to say if it’s pretty.”
Using an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil, she creates drawings, diagrams and flowcharts of concepts such as “thoughts that your minority friend might have,” an “anatomy of an ally” and an illustration of Ahmaud Arbery over Senator Kamala Harris’ quote: “Exercising while Black should not be a death sentence.”
Coke’s pretty art might look simple, but the pieces require her to conduct rigorous research in order to break down facets of race and privilege into easy-to-digest illustrations.
Posts like the ones she shared on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which showed a protest sign that said Dr. King was “a radical disrupter” and “not a quiet, gentle, law-abiding peacekeeper,” have earned her more than 434,000 Instagram followers.
Coke is finding that people finally want to hear her voice, too: She’s hosted three Instagram Live sessions about “turning awareness into action.”
When Ariel Sinha heard the story of Ahmaud Arbery she felt angry. She felt empathy for his family. She hurt. She thought, “Well, where are my strengths? What am I good at? How can I keep helping honor this person’s life and tell this story?”
She could draw on her iPad. She drew a portrait of Arbery, dignified, in front of flowers. She drew Breonna Taylor in a similar way. She drew George Floyd. She drew Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Black trans women who were murdered. Again, their images were bright, regal even. “I wanted to honor the beauty of their lives,” Sinha, who lives in Chicago, says.
As a full-time user interface designer at an agency, Sinha, 30, is still honing her artistic voice and making sure her work is inclusive. After she posted a recent piece, of a woman with long hair who’s wearing a cochlear implant, she had a couple of people message her, excited to see themselves represented in art.
“I have friends who challenge and remind me to be more representative in my artwork all the time,” she says. “Featuring people of all body types, all abilities, all races and just highlighting the beauty and everyone’s humanity is what I’m going for.”
Earlier this year, Shane Grammer felt compelled to paint a portrait of Kobe Bryant after the NBA legend died in a helicopter crash. He didn’t know it would be just one of the memorial murals he’d make this year.
“When Kobe died with his daughter, I was broken over it,” the 48-year-old from Chico, California says. “I have three girls and I take my girls on projects with me all the time and we paint together.”
In June, Grammer returned to the wall in Los Angeles where he’d painted a side view of Bryant to add a mural of another father who died, George Floyd.
The image of Floyd is different from any Grammer has made. At the last minute, he decided to give the portrait a golden glow.
“I just felt, because of the way our country is feeling and responding to what happened to him, it’s almost like he is sanctified, if that makes sense,” he says. “My mural was showcased in George Floyd’s funeral video in Houston and I had no idea. I had friends telling me that happened, and I could have chosen to not do it. You know?”
As Grammer sees it, the inclusion of his art in the video was evidence that as an artist, he should listen to his instincts to go out and paint.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Protest art: Stories behind the moving images that demand change