It was about two years ago that Francis Wabibi, known around Charlotte’s art scene as Francesko the Artist, made the jump that every artist frets over and aspires to; inspired by a trip to Charlotte Art League, Wabibi quit his job in retail and decided to pursue his art career full-time.
“I was inspired,” he told the Charlotte Observer in a profile published in February 2021. “I had the money. I had the means. I said, ‘Why don’t I invest in myself?’ ”
Now, not even two years after the article highlighting Wabibi’s bright future in the arts was published, that future has been snatched from him. On November 23, 2022, the 32-year-old Wabibi was found dead in a jail cell in Atlanta, where he had been booked two months prior on a loitering charge.
While limited information has been coming from jail officials, Wabibi’s friends and family say he was killed, which would make him the latest victim of deadly violence in a jail that’s faced controversy regarding overcrowding, intimidation and beatings during the past year. Now his family is calling for justice.
Remembering an ‘optimistic’ soul
Born June 27, 1990, Francis Wabibi leaves behind a host of friends and family who cared deeply for him. He was a son, brother, cousin, uncle and friend to many.
“Francis was optimistic,” his sister Shana Wabibi told Queen City Nerve. “He never took life too seriously.”
Francis also served as Shana’s support system, as she recalled from the time their dog passed away.
“This was, I want to say maybe 3 in the morning or so. I was so distraught,” she said. “But Francis, he was so great. I was like, ‘Francis, I can’t touch her. I don’t want to touch her.’”
Francis then handled the dog, drove with his sister to the emergency room where their dog was pronounced deceased, and consoled her.
“I was so thankful that he was there for me at that time because I couldn’t have done that by myself,” she said.
Shana said she’s been overwhelmed with support since her brother’s passing, stating that many people have reached out to her since his death, including people she never knew her brother had been in contact with — friends from middle school, artists from around Charlotte and others.
“He touched so many different people,” she said.
Queen City Nerve also spoke with Lavonte Hines, known around Charlotte’s hip-hop scene as producer and rapper FLLS. Hines was a close friend of Francis and also emphasized his optimism, adding that the young artist was “into being his own person.”
Hines and Francis had been traveling in the same circles since middle school, but it wasn’t until 2011 that they became friends. Hines said he and Francis shared an interest in gaming, music, art and anime.
Hines was always impressed with Francis’ wide range of knowledge, he said. He was able to work with different computer programs, then switch over to maneuver social situations with people as well.
“He just knew how to go about making his choices effectively,” Hines said, adding that Francis made sure he knew who everyone was when he was in a room with them.
“[He said] ‘because you got to know who’s who in the room so you can get the most out of your opportunities,’” Hines recalled.
He spoke in present tense about his friend for much of the interview.
“Everyday with this guy is something new,” Hines said.
Francesko the Artist
Francis Wabibi developed a passion for art at a young age. The Charlotte Observer reported that he often skipped nap time during preschool to draw or sketch.
Shana told Queen City Nerve she was astonished by his love for art and his propensity to work toward becoming a better artist.
“Francis had a great work ethic,” she said. “He was working on his craft everyday.”
He dabbled in several different artistic mediums, picking up the moniker Francesko the Artist. He did street art, murals, sketches, photography, and comic books. He also produced two series of webcomics on the popular site Webtoons, one of which garnered almost 10,000 views and over 100 subscribers.
Hines said Francis’ art meant everything to him.
“He couldn’t live without it,” he said.
Hines recalled a time when Francis couldn’t afford a canvas to do artwork. Rather than do something else, Francis went to an abandoned building and removed the door. He had his canvas.
Occasionally, Francis took his art to new heights.
“I remember him telling me how he took [our friend] Josh on top of some skyscraper and showed him how he was able to tag this one skyscraper off Independence [Boulevard],” Hines said, most likely referring to the Varnadore Building. “It was an abandoned building and he got to the top. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Because of how prolific his art was, and how many different scenes he connected with thanks to his talents and interests in different mediums, he quickly developed a reputation.
“He was friends with everyone,” Hines said.
Hines and Shana agreed that Francis’ loss was immeasurable for the Charlotte community.
“Francis was literally on the verge of getting to where he needed to go. Imagine where Francis would have been 10 years from now,” Shana said. “The impact that he already started having now, it would have been so much more if he was still here. I’m surprised by the amount of people that knew him through his artwork because I didn’t realize how much that he was impacting people, not even just in the Charlotte community, but also in Atlanta as well.”
While Francis was well-known throughout Charlotte for his art, he often traveled for projects and to promote his work. Atlanta was often one of his destinations.
A family yet to find closure
Francis Wabibi was booked into Fulton County Jail on a loiter/prowl charge on Sept. 21. His family worked tirelessly to have him released, but they say they experienced a lot of resistance. His court date was pushed back several times and they were unable to physically visit him due to COVID restrictions.
Shana flew down to Atlanta with their mother, and because they weren’t allowed in to see him, they asked the guards about his well-being.
“As far as the guards who were there, they never said not once that he was combative or anything like that,” she said. “[They said], ‘He follows all the directions. He just keeps to himself. And he loves to draw. He just draws.’
“So even when he was in jail, he was still doing what he loved,” Shana said, crying at this point in the interview. “That’s one thing that I admire about him, because he knew his purpose. There’s a lot of people who don’t ever get to find their purpose in this life, but he knew his purpose was to create. And that’s what he did, even up until he passed away.
“No matter where he is, he’s always going to be creating something,” she continued.
After being in custody for around two months, Francis was found dead in his cell. The jail has not yet publicly released a cause of death, and calls to multiple numbers at the jail were unanswered at the time this paper went to print. Shana told Queen City Nerve her brother was strangled by a fellow inmate.
The case is still under investigation, so there is much that his family doesn’t yet know. One thing they do know is that the scenario is eerily similar to something that happened a month before his death.
On Oct. 19, Shamar Mcelroy was found in his Fulton County Jail cell, strangled, according to 11 Alive. An inmate had also been killed in the jail by two other inmates in September.
The Mcelroy family went to the Atlanta jail to protest because they didn’t want that to happen to anyone else. “And then not even a month later, that same thing happens to Francis,” Shana said.
Now Francis’ family is looking for answers and justice. They feel similar to Mcelroy’s family and don’t want this to happen again. Both families want change. A GoFundMe set up by Shana following her brother’s death has a stated goal to “help us properly lay my brother to rest and seek justice on his behalf.”
Shana said she wants to use money from the GoFundMe to hire a lawyer to help pursue an independent investigation of how Francis was killed, and to join with the Mcelroy family to find broader answers about the issues within Fulton County Jail.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for those family members that went to go do that protest, I would have never heard about them at all,” Shana said. “I would have just thought that Francis was the first case that this happened to, but apparently he wasn’t the first one. So that’s why even me and my family members, after the funeral and after things kind of calm down, that’s something that we want to do. We want to go down and protest, too, because who knows?”
For now, Francis’ family takes solace in the memories they cherish. Shana has heard so many stories from people expressing how Francis impacted their lives, and without her brother to turn to, those are what she now clings to.
“The thing that really touches me is hearing different stories from people about my brother, like how they got to experience them and all the good memories that he’s given them,” she said. “That part makes me smile — it makes me smile to know that’s going to live on forever.”