The Effects of Charlotte, NC’s Mural on the Community and the BLM Movement
Art expresses ideas that are sometimes too complex to set into words. Murals are one form of art that activists often use to evoke emotion, promote a cause, and bring awareness to social issues. Recent attention to police brutality and its resulting deaths along with other issues stemming from continual systemic racism have sparked a rise in murals supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement throughout the country. One example of such a mural was that painted on South Tryon Street in Charlotte, NC. This article will analyze the themes and symbols found within that mural and compare these motifs to historic murals painted in support of the Chicanx and civil rights movements. By examining and comparing these themes, the article will bring awareness and support to the movement. This article will also advocate for the support of artists in continuing to create their public art forms by discussing how the Charlotte mural united a community and supported the need for foundational changes in the United States.
From slavery to Jim Crow laws, structures that disproportionately hinder black and brown citizens form the foundation of the United States. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others are among the most recent that have led to protests advocating for necessary changes within law enforcement. Charlotte, NC is one city that has faced continued issues with racial disparities. Many protests occurred in Charlotte during 2020 in conjunction with artists uniting to create a mural supporting the BLM movement. Muralism as a form of protest art is not a new practice. Activists have used murals to support social movements since the early 1900s, and the art form’s popularity has only since its usage in the Chicanx and Civil Rights Movements. Artists like Diego Rivera and Aaron Douglas have used murals to express important themes, evoke emotion, and educate the community by promoting their causes.
Yet, there has been some debate over the effectiveness of this art form. Some question whether art is truly effective in enacting change or whether it is simply a distraction from the real issues (Wilson). For example, after the BLM mural in Washington D.C. was created, Black Lives Matter DC denounced the mural as being purely “performative street art[;]” the organization pointed out the hypocritical nature of the mayor, who continues to underfund programs aiding Black people despite authorizing the mural (Schultz). The effectiveness of protest art is in its ability to spread awareness, provide a sense of community, and promote the need for change. However, the efforts to support a cause should not stop after the creation of protest art; real systemic change requires further action. This article will advocate for artists to continue to create public works of art, not as a replacement for acting to initiate change but as a supplement.
Organization of the Mural and Community Response
Many artists and organizations worked together to create Charlotte’s BLM mural on South Tryon Street. The mural itself spells out “Black Lives Matter” with each letter being painted by a different artist and containing a different image. The artists completed this project in just seventy-two hours; a fact that demonstrates the commitment and hard work of all those involved. According to Brand the Moth, one of the project’s collaborators, a project of this size would typically take around three months to plan and execute (“Supporting Artists”). The artists’ ability to collaborate quickly on this art form also illustrates their passion for the cause, which truly translates into their work, as many of the artists used very personal influences in their specific letter.
The BLM mural received much positivity and praise. The news highlighted the story of how the community united to create this work of art advocating for change (Lindstrom). On the other hand, opponents purposely defaced the mural with tire marks spanning the whole length of the mural shortly after its creation. The community reunited after this act of vandalism to repair the mural, painting over the tire tracks and restoring their artwork (Lindstrom). The city of Charlotte closed off the street to traffic to prevent further damage and demonstrate their support for the movement, artists, and collaborators. Despite attempts at destruction, the mural remains intact and attracts the attention of residents and visitors. The mural’s location is significant because South Tryon Street has often been the location of protests, allowing the mural to become a “focal point for many people participating in peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations” (Lindstrom). The mural’s ability to act as a focal point provides people an opportunity to reflect on the art’s message and ensures the proper exposure of this piece of protest art.
Letters of the Mural
Each letter of the mural has its own story and inspiration which when taken in conjunction creates an overall message of unity and empowerment. While each letter conveys an important message, this article will only analyze a few of the letters due to later comparison and connection to historical murals. Some of the artists drew inspiration from pop culture such as anime, comics, and television shows. For example, the letter B has an image of Storm from the X-Men with the quote “Do I not matter? Will I ever? Why won’t you love me America?” at the top (The Biscuit Staff). In the comics and movies, Storm is a descendant of African priestesses, who all have powers (“Storm”). Using an icon who demonstrates strength, kindness, and empowerment combined with the included quote allows viewers to question why Storm, a capable and strong superhero, is often undervalued or underappreciated.
Similarly, the letter K depicts the Marvel comic character Deadpool with #BLM written on his face. Deadpool is known for being an incredibly outspoken and rather radical character. The artist who painted this letter cites Deadpool’s personality as being one of the main reasons for why he chose this character to express his point of view (The Biscuit Staff). The character speaks to the BLM movement, as more and more people need to use their voices to create change in this country. The artist, Garrison Gist, also discussed an Easter egg reason for choosing Deadpool, as the character is pansexual in the comics. Because the mural was painted during Pride Month, Gist wanted to display support for the LGBTQ+ community as well (The Biscuit Staff).
The letter C painted by Abel Jackson draws inspiration from the Olympian Tommie Smith, as a silhouette of him raising his fist to the sky is shown. Smith famously raised his fist in support of the fight for human rights in the 1968 Olympics (The Biscuit Staff). In the mural, his fist is surrounded by sunlight, and below him is a border of red, which Jackson cites as representing “‘blood, sweat, and tears’” (The Biscuit Staff). The inclusion of the color red along with its representation illustrates complete devotion to the cause and the intensity of fighting for equal rights. In the same light, one of the L’s is also painted red with Black fists coming from the sides of the letter; each with BLM written on them. Phrases such as “I will protect you”, “Estamos Juntos” (“We are together”), and “Tu Lucha Mi Lucha” (“Your fight my fight”) are written on the L with a pattern of swirly lines connecting each fist and phrase (The Biscuit Staff). The artists discuss how the letter is in support of the Afro Latinx community as well as just a message of solidarity among minority communities (The Biscuit Staff). The swirling lines seem to highlight this feeling of unity, as they physically link each fist and phrase, creating an image of literal connection and togetherness. When taken as a whole, the Charlotte mural truly captures the feelings, ideas, and beliefs of the BLM movement and of current events, evoking many emotions and educating the public on the necessity of change.
Comparison of Charlotte’s Mural to Chicanx and Civil Rights Movements’ Murals
Comparing the Charlotte mural to past murals involved in social movements, such as the Chicanx and Civil Rights Movements, causes certain themes to emerge and aids in determining the effectiveness of the Charlotte mural in raising awareness of the BLM movement. Aaron Douglas was a famous African American muralist during the early 1900s, who had a prominent role in the development of African American art and inspired future generations of artists (Jordan 866). One common element in Aaron Douglas’s murals is an image of concentric circles or a ray of light, drawing the viewer’s attention to a specific point on the artwork. These circles and rays often emphasize images of hope, such as in Douglas’s mural, Harriet Tubman. In this mural, Douglas depicts Harriet Tubman breaking free of her chains with a ray of light falling softly over her, suggesting a “divine support,” and concentric circles accentuate her figure (Jordan 872). The emphasis of the circles also ensures a focus on this hopeful image and intensifies the message of the mural.
Similarly, in the Charlotte mural, artist Abel Jackson’s depiction of an Olympic athlete’s silhouette with a raised fist haloed by sunlight places emphasis on a sign of unity and strength. Jackson commented that the sunlight surrounding the raised fist demonstrated how the BLM movement could no longer be ignored just as it is impossible to ignore the sun in the sky (The Biscuit Staff). Jackson and Douglas both used elements of their murals to draw attention to symbols of freedom, determination, and hope to establish a clear message of continuing to fight for equality. Many of Douglas’s murals also have a common theme of incorporating and celebrating Black culture and heritage (Jordan 873). Douglas wanted to help unite Black people with an homage to identity and history (Jordan 873). The Charlotte mural also unites all people by not only referencing significant pop culture characters, such as Deadpool and Storm, but also by celebrating the beauty of differences with elements representing the LGBTQ+, Latinx, and Black Latinx communities. These communities are all honored, along with Black culture, throughout the mural, which is a conglomeration of different identities.
Honoring different cultural identities in murals was also common during the Chicanx movement in the 1960s. The Chicanx movement occurred as people of Mexican descent living in the U.S. struggled to preserve their culture, language, and identity as they experienced continual pressure to assimilate to the American lifestyle (Reed 105). The popularity of murals increased during this time period, as many artists painted homages to their Mexican heritage. One mural in particular painted by Antonio Bernal depicted several prominent figures associated with the Chicanx and Civil Rights Movements. The mural displayed an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X alongside many of the inspirational leaders who fought for the rights of Mexican Americans, such as César Chávez and Reies López Tijerina (Reed 109-110). This image expressed the commitment of the Chicanx, Black Power, and Civil Rights Movements to obtaining rights and equality for all oppressed people.
The message of standing in solidarity against injustice is powerful and evident in Bernal’s mural as well as in the Charlotte mural. In the Charlotte mural, the letter L contains phrases such as “Estamos Juntos” (“We are together”) and “Tu Lucha Mi Lucha” (“Your fight my fight”), connecting Latinx culture and language to the BLM movement (The Biscuit Staff). This connection seen in both the Bernal and Charlotte mural demonstrates support and dedication to creating change across cultures and securing equality for all people.
Murals have supported social movements since the early 1900s, and the BLM mural in Charlotte contains many of the same themes and ideas as historic murals. When comparing the Charlotte mural to murals by Aaron Douglas and Antonio Bernal, patterns emerge in the artists’ attempts to unite the people who witness their work. Douglas and Bernal both had murals that effectively supported their causes and inspired future generations of artists. Their murals furthered and strengthened their movements by creating visuals of important issues for the public to view. Similarly, the Charlotte mural advocates for change and uses pop culture and uniting images to support the BLM movement.
The collaboration of many artists and Brand the Moth, BLCKMRKTCLT, the City of Charlotte, and Charlotte is Creative illustrates the effectiveness of the mural in rallying the community together to demonstrate their commitment to creating necessary changes in the United States. While art cannot replace action, murals are able to inspire change, evoke emotion, and unite communities, which is valuable to social movements. The mural in Charlotte has served to bolster the BLM movement, as people often use the mural as a platform for their peaceful demonstrations when protesting in the city. Muralists and protest artists should continue to be supported as their work is necessary, thought provoking, and an invaluable expression of their beliefs.
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