Refreshing “Black Lives Matter!” on the street and in the public consciousness.

William Messer

The recent restoration of Cincinnati’s “Black Lives Matter!” prominent political street art preserves and refreshes its resonant message.

One of the more visible manifestations of the nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020 was a remarkable profusion of street art which emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement. Similar to the early public art of Ohio-born Jenny Holzer in the late 1970s (her Truisms), the pieces were language based political speech, employing large capital letters to “show some sense of urgency and to speak … loudly” (2022 Holzer interview). Unlike Holzer’s works, which were focused on sexism, these were focused on racism; and instead of being pasted on buildings, walls and fences around Manhattan they were painted on the city streets themselves, all over the country. And instead of a variety of pithy, provocative one liners, each was comprised of the single, powerful, obvious truism that “Black Lives Matter.”

There was seldom one artist responsible for these street paintings, but often the result of a spontaneous combustion from a community demanding to be heard. Certainly that was the case with what is known as the Black Lives Matter! Mural in Cincinnati, which occupies (reminding of the previous decade’s Occupy movement) an entire four-lane street and is a city block long, just in front of the entrance to City Hall, and which this June, 2023, received its second “refresh.”

Cincinnati’s Black Lives Matter! street art being painted in June, 2020

There are several things which separate Cincinnati’s offering from other “Black Lives Matter” street art around the country. Most of the early manifestations were plain block letters in yellow paint urgently proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” in some instances several blocks long. In Cincinnati an exclamation point has been added for emphasis (the only such to do so). Additionally in Cincinnati the visible public manifestation of “Black Lives Matter!” became an occasion to engage the African-American community cooperatively in personal artistic expression, with each of the 16 letters and exclamation point becoming a single “canvas” for a local artist, with each word a shared color (a red “BLACK”, a black “LIVES”, and green ‘MATTER!”), then united into a single phrase. As one of the 17 artists, Cedric Cox, said at this July’s refresh, “This is also about fostering relationships between older artists and younger artists, and watching that grow and develop.”

The refresh itself is also something separating the Cincinnati work from most others around the country, which have generally been allowed to fade or be worn away by time and tires. Cincinnati’s is not solely a response to a historical event, itself a historical moment in time, but a continuing “powerful reminder, right at the doorstep of City Hall, that no matter what is coming our way as a city, as a community we’re always going to do what we can to drive progress, equity and a better future for black Cincinnatians” according to Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval at the revitalization ceremonies. An article in Cincinnati Magazine referred to the painting as Cincinnati’s African-American community Bat Signal.

The original painting (you’ll notice I keep avoiding calling it a mural, as murals – from the French word for wall, mur – are painted on walls, not streets; I propose a new word for paintings on the street, “rueal”, from the French word rue meaning street… think I’ll start using it from here on) was a collaborative effort by Black Art Speaks, the artists’ collective which designed and painted it; Art Works (renown for their local urban walls murals expertise); Arts Wave (a funding source for local arts institutions), the Urban League of Cincinnati (enabling minority funding opportunities) and local government.

The idea was proposed by Alandes Powell, a vice-president at Fifth/Third Bank, who also significantly organized the project, assisted by lead artist Brandon Hawkins (artist of “B”). Powell had responded to George Floyd’s execution and the Black Lives Matter movement by writing an explanatory poem, “We Want What You Want,” which had been inspired by reading James Baldwin. Her poem then served as the inspiration for the rueal and became its essential foundation, as each letter telling its own story connected to lines of the poem while also connecting to each artist’s personal experiences.

In a 2021 interview Powell reflected, “The artists who agreed to do this last year, not knowing they were going to get paid when they said yes, had never met me. [When I phoned them] it was the first time they heard my voice, and they said yes. That’s Cincinnati courage.” Powell initially secured $2,500 for each of the 17 artists.

Powell also was instrumental in the creation of the coffee-table sized book The Making of Cincinnati’s Black Lives Matter Mural documenting the rueal’s creation, with Danielle Lewis Jones as co-author and lead writer and Steven Smith the book’s designer.

“This whole process happened at a time where many of us were very angry and very sad and very depressed about what was happening in our world,” said Toilynn O’Neal-Turner, one of the Black Art Speaks members who helped to do this year’s refresh (redesigning the exclamation point initially painted by Jonathan Sears to include a fist clutching a broken chain). “I think what’s really crucial – not just the whole fact that we’ve repainted it and it’s beautiful – is that we’re making sure that people understand that it’s important to keep refreshing ourselves on these principles and these things that we need to do as a community right now.”

I took part in the initial refresh in 2021, for which Cincinnati Council approved spending $125,000 from city reserves, and which was “unveiled” with City Hall’s Juneteenth flag raising. The motion to repair the street painting was proposed by Councilmember Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney and was unanimously approved. In Kearney’s words then, “The Black Lives Matter! mural represents racial healing in our community. The messages by the individual artists are thought-provoking and they inspire dialogue among people with diverse viewpoints. The mural presents a safe space for each of us to listen to each other and share our own stories.”

I responded to a local TV news report about the refresh in which main project manager Brandon Hawkins was interviewed saying volunteers would be welcome to help with repainting. When I got there I saw very few of the 70 or so others there looked particularly like me, but I’m glad we were there. One thing which has characterized Black Lives Matter protests around the country has been exceptional diversity in age and ethnicity. Despite Hawkins seeming slightly surprised to see me I was welcomed and assigned to the genial Adoria Maxberry, the 33-year old artist of the letter “M,” in the green word.

Adoria Maxberry and her letter M, in 2020.

The 17 original artists (also referred to as project managers) ranged in age from 22 to 56, most in their 30s. Maxberry, a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools and a mother, had depicted, on the left side of the M, a lone brown female figure with raised arms against a field of green, behind a single sunflower with a black fisted center, in grass with roots below the ground in the form of many brown ancestral bodies. One the right side of the M a nuclear family in shades of green (representing her own family) is growing toward the light in a field of many such sunflowers. Script laces the two sides together, illuminating the pictorial aspects (and vice versa), with a line from Powell’s poem: “They buried us [on the left] but forgot [in the valley of the ‘M’] we are seeds [on the right side].”

Maxberry told the The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2020 she hopes people who look at the work – and at the family she’s depicted – will see a glimpse of themselves within it. “You name it, within any arena, there has been adversity that has truly allowed us to grow whether we see it or not. It’s allowed us to be stronger, to do better. This will help us to learn to love and learn to grow together.”

Adoria Maxberry’s selfie with author, June 17, 2021

In no way am I claiming for myself status as one of the artists of the refreshed BLM! – far from it. I was basically a junior apprentice following Maxberry’s instructions, working to the artist’s template, more like filling in a coloring book or a paint-by-the-numbers drawing. Nevertheless the feeling of participation was palpable, and the rewarding sense of being a contributor to this significant aspect of Cincinnati history.

The refresh presented an opportunity for some artists to make slight changes in their original artwork and unfortunately also an opportunity for a racist response, as overnight someone vandalized the work by pouring red paint over two of the letters (“E” and “S” in “LIVES”). While most of the defacement was removed or painted over, some of that red paint was allowed to remain as a reminder that opposition to the political movement for equality, and even simply the statement that “Black Lives Matter!”, continues.

My second day painting I brought one of these gardener’s foam platforms to kneel on to try to lessen further wear and tear on my cottonpickin’ back. At the rededication ceremony on City Hall steps, Hawkins at the podium specifically thanked “Santa Claus” for volunteering to help. I looked around for someone in a Santa outfit (despite it making no sense in the summer heat). When he repeated the request for “Santa” to come up, he seemed to be looking very near me; so I turned to look behind me, where two young women looked back and said, somewhat impatiently, “He means you!” (of course: 70+, post-COVID full beard, bit of a belly, white… Santa Claus). I stepped up to the podium thinking he’d like me to say something, but misread that too. Fortunately Cedric Cox made a space for me to stand silently, and proudly, next to him. 

In an article about last year’s refresh I read that 46 year-old artist Brent Billingsley (whose green “A”  was next to Adoria’s “M” and which I also helped repaint) reflected that the previous year he was just “a country boy who [barely] knew how to color inside the lines” but felt he had become an artist because of the BLM! opportunity. “I think that this right here is just beginning,” he’d said with conviction. 

Although this will be the final refresh of BLM! – in 2025, Plum Street in front of City Hall is due for a complete resurfacing – 2025 provides a new opportunity for artistic and political expression, and a smooth, new canvas for a reimagined rueal.