Downtown Indy’s Racial Justice Murals, In Their Artists’ Own Words
Before some of the local Black Lives Matter murals came down, the Arts Council of Indianapolis had dozens of the plywood paintings photographed for an exhibit planned at the Central Library this fall. Here, from the artists themselves, are the stories behind their creation. Photos by Tony Valainis.
This triptych of George Floyd in three stages of life is visually arresting. But Solomon, who is a visiting artist at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, hopes it will inspire empathy, too. He wants people to see themselves in the work, no matter the color of their skin. “I wanted to paint George Floyd in a way everyone could relate to,” he says. “So I presented him as a baby, because everyone is someone’s child; as a man, because everyone is an individual; and as a father, because most adults are parents.” Solomon says he’s proud to highlight the unjust treatment of Black people in America. “I want to see a better world for my children,” he says.
On a piece of plywood, a Black woman exhales these words: “I have come to see you write your will to live.” The declaration, penned by local poet Manon Voice, curls around the moon. “I wanted to express the idea of Black female breath being snuffed out on a regular basis,” Khan says. The former English teacher hopes she can one day be taken seriously for work other than what she calls “ethnic art.” “The only work I can get paid for right now is about performing race for white audiences,” she says.
Mike “Kwazar” Martin
A 38-year-old former tattoo artist, Martin freehanded his large portrait of George Floyd’s face on Mass Ave in about three hours. He grew up in what he calls a “rough neighborhood” at 31st Street and Sherman Drive, and says recent events have caused him to consider his own interactions with officers in a new light. “I was never scared,” he says. “But looking back, the police did some things that were highly inappropriate.” Although he has seen an uptick in commissions lately, he still sees only limited opportunities in Indy. “When I started painting, I got it into my head that it would be harder to get a show in Chicago because it was a bigger city,” he says. “But I’ve now done several shows there, and I’ve never understood why I can’t get more here.”
Rebecca Robinson (aka PSNOB)
On a sweltering morning in June, Robinson planted her flag outside Union Station. Her image of a kneeling Black person gripping the handle of a white flag features a rendering of the United States to reflect that BLM protests have occurred in all 50 states. The figure is a genderless silhouette. “I wanted anyone to be able to identify with it,” she says. The piece took four days to produce and left her physically and mentally exhausted, but the exertion was worth it. “This project is breaking down walls and shedding light on Black artists,” she says. “It shows that we have valuable voices, too.”
From graffiti under local bridges to the logos for the Cultural Districts like Mass Ave, Parnell’s work can be found all over the city. But the mural the 50-year-old artist dreamed up for the exterior of Repro Graphix on Illinois Street this summer was one of his most personal. “It was about filling the hurt,” he says. Volunteers from Hope Haven, an Indianapolis mental health center, painted in a stained-glass-like grid of raised fists and undulating bodies that Parnell outlined. While he was feeling broken when he began the piece, he felt empowered when it was finished. “Six months ago, I was jobless,” he says. “But now I’m getting calls from across the country about opportunities.”
When Shakur approached the Arts Council with his original idea for a mural—a police car driving over Black people who had been killed by cops—they told him it was too graphic. The 16 names (from Sandra Bland to Dreasjon Reed) and principles like “economic equality” that take their place were his compromise. “I want people to feel uncomfortable,” Shakur says. “The only time people really listen is when you make them uncomfortable.” The painter believes the power structure in America needs to change, but the opportunities for Black artists in Indy give him hope. “It’s better now than it has ever been,” he says.
Boxx the Artist
For her first public mural commission, the artist known as Boxx had no idea what she was going to paint until she showed up outside Union Station this spring. Standing there, she says she was inspired to create her dueling “Love” and “Hate” rings by the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. “At first in the film, it seems like hate prevails,” she says. “But at the last moment, love conquers all.” Boxx hopes the movement won’t end with the recent demonstrations. “We can’t just paint ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the middle of the street,” she says. “We have to redesign the overall system of white supremacy.”
The headline for this story was edited to clarify that the organizers behind these murals are not affiliated with the official Black Lives Matter movement.