Arts & CultureArts Features

Black Lives Matter Mural in Uptown Raises Discussion Around What’s Next

Take it to the streets

On Tuesday, June 9, a group of 17 Charlotte-based artists made international headlines by painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in a mural across South Tryon Street between East 3rd and East 4th streets. The project was the result of a partnership between the city of Charlotte, Charlotte is Creative, Brand the Moth and BlkMrkt CLT, with each artist paid $500 for their work on that Tuesday afternoon.

After the Black Lives Matter mural was finished, we chatted with four of the participating artists to discuss their creative process, their feelings on this month’s protests, and their hopes for the future.

We began with Dammit Wesley, founder of BlkMrkt CLT, who sent out a call on Sunday night asking artists to contribute to the mural. Within 72 hours, South Tryon had a bright new addition. But Wesley — and the rest of the art scene — is just getting started.

Queen City Nerve: Tell me about your piece of the Black Lives Matter mural. What does the crying woman represent?
Dammit Wesley: In college, one of my favorite artists was Roy Lichtenstein. The way that he would take these big, bold 1960s romance comics and blow them up to large-scale … it really intrigued me. So for me, a couple years ago, I did my own rendition of “Crying Girl.” I used an image of Storm from the Chris Claremont era X-Men comics. I just started using that as a vehicle to express my feelings as a Black person in America. Looking at the character of Storm, you know — she’s Black, she’s a woman, and she’s a mutant. She’s discriminated against in ways that people on her team don’t even understand.

It’s a level of intersectionality — like being an outcast from the outcasts. But you still gotta put on your big boy or big girl pants and go out and save the world every day, even though the world continues to hate you.

As one of the key organizers for this project, what role do you think art plays in the movement?
Art has always been a part of revolution. People are very visual-oriented; we need symbols to get behind. You can kill a person but you can’t kill an idea. One of the best examples we have of that right now is Kobe Bryant. He was a person but he also had a persona — there was Mamba, the Mamba mentality. People use that as a credo, like they live by it, right? So we have visual representations of Kobe Bryant that people still live by.

Whether it’s a painting, a poem, a song, a dance — these ideas, when they’re put out there, they no longer belong to the artist, but to the public. They galvanize the people. They become immortal. So despite whatever happens to that mural on Tryon, that moment will always mean a lot to those who experienced it. It was a cathartic time for those who were looking for answers, for those who needed to express themselves in some way that didn’t result in retaliation from the police. That’s what art is to the revolution.

Dammit Wesley works on his design for the letter B. (Photo by Kate Galindo)

A lot of people see the Black Lives Matter mural as a jump-off point, but some folks seem to think it means the movement’s over.
Oh, no. It’s not. I mean, I see all of this as a great starting point. With everything that happened in nine hours, we saw that you can raise public morale and make a huge change. Not too long after we shut down, after the blockades were lifted, people came out and blocked the street itself to prevent people from driving over it. Why? To preserve the mural. [Later, after a man from Mooresville peeled his tires over the mural, artists returned on a Sunday to touch it up.]

This city has a connection to its artists — its artists are the ones who are defining the identity of Charlotte. If the city would just give us 1-2% of that budget, we could finally get beyond the point of asking, “What is Charlotte’s identity? Who are we?” We don’t need a marketing team or a brand strategist!

It’s within me, it’s within BlkMrkt, it’s within Southern Tiger Collective — we’re putting in the work to highlight the heart and soul of this city. We’re gonna art regardless — we can either work with you or against you, but we’re gonna be working. As far as racism, I don’t know if I can fix that as a Black man. That’s more of a whites-only problem. That’s gonna require a lot of talking and therapy.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Um, if you’re reading this, you know, defund the police. (laughs) Sit back and think about all the times they pulled you over for a broken tail light and 12 cop cars and three dogs later, they let you go with a warning. Cut the shit. Conservative Republican or not, they’re wasting your money.

We then spoke with Chad Cartwright, better known as CHD:WCK!. A self-taught artist hailing from New Jersey, CHD:WCK! is fascinated with visual art of all kinds: fonts, photography, abstracts, nude figures, and so on. His letter (the second T in “MATTER”) features his unique handwriting.

Queen City Nerve: I’ve noticed that a lot of your work does revolve around typography. What about that medium, in your opinion, makes it so powerful?
CHD:WCK!: I’ve always been into graffiti, just from what I saw growing up as a teenager … When I went to high school, I took architectural drafting, and with graffiti and architectural drafting there’s definitely a strong focus on letter forms. Those things always stuck with me. I’d get a lot of comments on people liking my handwriting. At some point, I tried to just turn my handwriting into a more visual element instead of just words. Overall, I really like to go even more abstract than I did in [the Black Lives Matter piece], but I very much wanted this message to be communicated.

Your piece of the Black Lives Matter mural features the phrase: “There Is No Change Without Disruption.” What made you choose that quote?
For me, “There Is No Change Without Disruption” speaks to the fact that problems and problematic behaviors usually come from a problematic way of thinking about things, and you’re not going to be able to build better habits or solve problems with old problematic thinking. You have to disrupt your own habits and views in order to change.

CHD:WCK! puts words in a letter. (Photo by Kate Galindo)

How do you apply that to these protests?
There’s a whole lot of systems in place that we think work effectively but don’t actually work effectively. They just prove themselves to be … the systems that we used for a long time (laughs). Even the movement to defund the police — which I am very excited about — like people been marching months ago, decades ago, even in the ’50s and ’60s for that. It’s not a new movement at all.

With all the money going to the police — like CMPD, 40% [of the city budget] — you cut all types of social programs. You cut things for mental health, you cut things for the arts, you cut things for education, and like … all of these, this lack of resources, it’s what drives crime. If you made a change and gave these things the resources they needed, there’d be a lot less need for policing in the first place.

In order to see the way to a clearer solution to a problem, you have to be willing to say: “Lemme ask some questions, and let me assess these things.” It wouldn’t be so much policing if we were pumping a lot more funding into resources that actually help the people who we criminalize.

Marcus Kiser is a forward-thinking, self-described “comic book nerd” and Charlotte native. Growing up, he was captivated by astronomy, often spending nights looking up at the moon with his father. That childhood interest is apparent in his Afrofuturistic artwork. What’s also apparent is his passion for social justice.

Queen City Nerve: Making the Black Lives Matter mural was really moving for a lot of onlookers, but what was going through your head while painting?
Marcus Kiser: It all happened so quickly. This was a huge community effort and it just amazed me that so many artists came out. The fact that people from all walks of life — different genders, different sexualities — all working towards this one cause to bring attention and awareness to Black Lives Matter. It was real hot out there, but absolutely worth it.

What do you hope to see the city do from here on out?
I’ve done a lot of work around social justice. I know it’s really hard to do public art that speaks on social issues and isn’t just beautification. You gotta be able to create conversations that people don’t want to have and don’t like having but need to be had. So this mural is a huge step — especially considering that like, I’ve been kicked out of shows because people weren’t ready to have some conversations.

But one thing that really riled me up was actually looking at the Q.C. Nerve video of protesters getting gassed by CMPD. I remember posting a status about it being like, “I’m not okay with law enforcement or the National Guard gassing onlooking civilians.”

They’re fighting a war! With these kids! These people running away and being trapped … It just makes me so upset. People are protesting the murder of unarmed Black men. The fact that you feel the need to gas them?! It makes no sense! Wrong is wrong. That’s it.

The world is Abel Jackson’s canvas. T-shirts, cars, motorcycles, walls — you name it, he’s airbrushed it. Originally, airbrushing was a way for him to financially support himself after quitting his corporate job, but in time, he made it into a fine art — which helps him tell the story of our community.

Queen City Nerve: So when I was researching your art, I realized I had already seen one of your works. It’s the mural off South Brevard Street.
Abel Jackson: Brooklyn!

That’s the one! History is clearly important to you. Tell me more about that.
I feel very strongly about history … When I do that type of mural, I always learn something about myself. When I did the Brooklyn mural, it made me realize that Negro Wall Street wasn’t just in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Negro Wall Street was all over the country, like Charlotte. And a lot of places throughout the country were so viciously attacked that you’d be hard pressed to even find buildings from that time.

But in Brooklyn, those buildings still exist — like Grace A.M.E. Zion and the Mecklenburg Investment Company building … It’s why I put them in [the Brooklyn mural]. I like to show that part of history that’s not normally talked about. Otherwise, you won’t know!

And that really seems to apply now, too. What’s it like commemorating history now? Would you say we’re in a pretty historical moment?
Yeah! I mean, I’ve been a part of protests, but I have never seen or felt anything quite like this. The emotions are so intense, more intense than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s potent right now.

Abel Jackson works on his design for the letter A. (Photo by Arthur Rogers)

Some people are saying that the city council still has work to do, and others seem to think that commissioning this Black Lives Matter mural and banning tear gas is enough. Would you call this mural a starting or stopping point?
Well, it ain’t a stopping point! My thing is this: As artists, we know that the revolution will not be televised, it’ll be painted! It’s gonna be song, it’s gonna be dance, it’s gonna be emcees and DJs. We are not distracting from the protests — we are playing a part in the protests.

To me, art really bridges the emotional gap. When you see art, it goes right to your heart; it bypasses your intellectual thinking and hits your emotional understanding. You become receptive. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I wanna reach the people who understand what’s going on and the people who don’t.

What’s your advice for those protesting against police brutality in Charlotte?
All I can say is stick with the protest. Find constructive ways of putting work into it and sticking to it.
But also be very mindful. Think for yourself, be creative, and continue to push forward. Don’t become complacent.

These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.

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