Heal the City Through Art

When George Floyd died at the hand of a former Minnesota police officer, no one could have predicted that it would be the catalyst for an unprecedented uprising as Floyd’s last words were heard around the world. 

Since then, videos of the horrific moment have gone viral and Black Lives Matter protests have taken the country by storm. People are grieving, but they are also finding ways to heal. 

Art is a universal language, one cultivated and shared across cultures, generations, and centuries. We still stand in wonder at sculptures created thousands of years ago, and the founders of Chicago’s Paint the City Initiative are hoping to tap into something brewing in the zeitgeist by offering Black artists a chance to make their voices heard through the tip of a paintbrush or a spray paint can.

What is the Paint the City Initiative?

Image Credit - Chicago Tonight: WTTW
According to WTTW, the initiative’s co-founder, Barrett Keithly, hopes his ambitious goal will utilize art as a way to transform anti-racism messages to transcend across all systems of belief. 

Chicago’s heart has always been in its flair for the arts. The city is famous for its architecture, history, and cultural scene. Dazzling murals add a splash of vibrancy and storytelling to multiple walls and subsections all across the city. Finding a way to represent current events through art seems natural.

More than 75 artists have already volunteered their time. Since the protests began and struck a nerve with thousands across America, new murals and art pieces have popped up all over the city.z
Since businesses have been forced to close and board up their windows, whether due to the ongoing pandemic or in support of the protests, all those wooden placards have become empty canvases for artists yearning to be heard.
The goal of co-founders Keithly and Missy Perkins is to eventually remove these pieces from the windows and display them in an art gallery—one that can truly represent what Black people have been thinking, seeing, and feeling for all these years. 

Sometimes words are not enough, which is why the initiative hopes to “heal the city through art.”

Perkins and Keithly are also hopeful they can encourage residents, especially younger ones, to go out and vote. Activism is a vital part of protesting, and now more than ever, we need the voices of the next generation to be heard. 

“Paint the City” is far from the first or only initiative based around using art to send a message in Chicago. As we mentioned, the city is full of powerful works meant to inspire—they are so integral to the city’s foundation that a mural registry was started so that they would be protected from graffiti re moval teams. We’ll shine a light on a few particularly profound pieces you may have missed.

Visual Resistance

Part of the importance of the “Paint the City” initiative is to allow communities to express their experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement and why it is of such importance to so many. 

When passersby in Chicago see the murals, the hope is that they will incorporate issues of social justice into their daily conversations and be further inspired to assist in changing the country’s dynamic. 

Part of the importance of the initiative is to keep Black and brown communities in the public eye, especially when the hashtags and publicity surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent protests stop being covered by news channels. 

As New City Art points out, not only are non-white communities more affected by police brutality, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has badly affected them more so than others. COVID-19 is more likely to afflict and kill Black and brown people than any other racial group. 

This means that some murals, especially those highlighting Floyd’s final plea that he could not breathe, can serve as a double meaning since they discuss the impact of both political injustices and the health concerns of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities. 

Artists Trixter and Yamms created a compelling art piece with the words “let us breathe” written across the top, located at Café Cancale. 

Another painting on the walls of the Denim Lounge, created by Josh Valdovinos, shows a Black fist rising up as a white and brown hand grips it from the sides. The words “peace, love, unity” are scrawled above the hands, calling for the unification of all people, regardless of race, to aid those most in need.

As the article notes, the sole goal of “Paint the City” is very pure and simple. It is to “show beauty in the midst of chaos” and cultivate a different perspective for those who do not know what it is like to be directly affected by racism.

Perhaps one of the greatest assets of the movement is that it doubles as a way to promote new artists who can showcase their work in an environment that is responsive to growth and unique identities. 

The founders have started a GoFundMe so that people can aid the artists in purchasing materials for their work. You might be surprised by how many different tools muralists are capable of using to design their artwork.

Black Lives Matter Murals

Credit- Forbes
Style Charade recently ran a piece shining a spotlight on many of the murals that have popped up all over Chicago in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests—many of these works coincide with, or are even part of, the “Paint the City” initiative. 

As mentioned, part of the interest in the designs created on boarded-up windows of small businesses is saving the artwork to be compiled into a database or displayed in a museum exhibition. There are several businesses in the area that are proud to host these murals.

  • Mary Fedorowski painted a “Color Is Not A Crime” mural at Neighborly and Dovetail. 
  • Anthony Medrano created a “United We Stand Or Divided We Fall” mural complete with a multitude of various painted fists rising up together at Topdrawer. He said the ultimate message of his work is about love.
  • Chris Orta painted a vibrant fist rising up in support of power to the people, asking people to continue fighting for those they love and for what they believe in. The mural is located at the Dill Pickle Food Co-op.
There are dozens of other murals all over Chicago painted in support of this vital and integral movement as Black people create new works that let their voices be heard by hundreds of thousands.

Unity Mural

Credit - Block Club Chicago
Sadly, a mural meant to highlight the collaboration between Black and brown people was removed in the West Side earlier this year, so artist Frankye Payne helped gather artists to create a new mural highlighting unity between these communities. 

In June, multiple muralists gathered at a special event hosted across the street from Avalon Regal Theater, per Block Club Chicago. The new mural was painted on the walls of Leon’s BBQ. 

The Mural Movement is another initiative with the purpose of beautifying areas in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, highlighting cultural elements, and inspiring others. 

Among some of the notable pieces created thus far is “Black Family” by artist Max Sansing, along with several other pieces by Sansing and muralists like Oscar Sanchez. 

Twenty-one murals are planned to decorate the South Side of Chicago, and the “Unity” mural was just one of the initiative’s beginning projects before the artists involved spread out to decorate more boarded-up storefronts on their own. The Mural Movement is meant to give Black and brown people hope and remind them of the lesser-known heroes in their communities.

Quincy Jones

Credit - Block Club Chicago
Argentinian street artist Cobre honored the prolific Black record producer Quincy Jones with a 30-foot mural in Logan Square. Planet Radio documented the initial creation of the mural, which went up last year. 

Cobre was reportedly motivated to create something for Jones after he watched a documentary about his life titled Keep On Keepin’ On. He felt it was important for younger artists, particularly those interested in music, to know who Jones is and was stunned by how many people had not heard of him or his legacy before.


Credit - Chicago Tonight: WTTW
In 2017, local artist and certifiable icon Kerry James Marshall completed his astounding 100-foot Rushmore mural, painted on the side of the Chicago Cultural Center. Similar to the current “Paint the City” project, Marshall’s mural was part of Chicago’s Year of Public Art, which lasted throughout the year to promote new artworks all over the city.

It took Marshall nine weeks to complete the stunning mural, which shows twenty women that helped build Chicago’s cultural scene, including Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Page, Gwendolyn Brooks, and more. The artist’s purpose in creating the mural was to highlight the impact women have had on Chicago and how they’re often underrepresented.

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