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Word on the Street: Artists, Residents and a Curator React to KC’s BLM Murals

Still Waiting for Change to Come

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Above image credit: The Washington Monument and the White House are visible behind the words Black Lives Matter that has been painted in bright yellow letters on the 16th Street, in Washington. (Khalid Naji-Allah | Executive Office of the Mayor via AP)

Six Kansas City artists have joined a national art movement to paint a bold, large statement in six different areas of the city on Saturday, and it’s already garnered predictably mixed reactions. 

In place of the handmade signs written in Sharpie held up at city-wide protests, these murals painted on public streets magnify a now-viral statement with bright yellow paint and almost 30-foot-long letters – Black Lives Matter. What’s different is its support by the local government.

On Aug. 6, 4th District Councilman Eric Bunch presented a resolution in support of KC Art on the Block, calling the project “a step forward towards helping to elevate the conversation.” This is similar to what other cities such as Charlotte have done.

“Systemic racism is deeply ingrained in our community and our society,” Bunch said. 

Similar to changing the names of fountains and street names, he said this is “another symbolic step towards our commitment to not just be not racist, but being anti-racist.”

The resolution passed almost unanimously. The single holdout was 1st District Councilwoman Heather Hall, who told The Kansas City Star that a Black Lives Matter mural would have a “complete valid reason to be in Kansas City.” However, she thought it would be better on a billboard or a wall. Her main concerns are that they could cause confusion in traffic, as well as the potential of opening the door to murals of all sorts of messaging in Kansas City.

Hall was not alone. After it was announced early August, area residents took to Twitter and Reddit. What ensued was a medley of discontent, discouragement and support. 

Brett Schmidt commented on KCTV5’s account and said: “All lives matter. Stop promoting racism. Will you paint whites lives, Hispanic lives and Indian lives matter in the following weeks ??. Just local KC politicians buying votes.”

Twitter user, @BoySnakey, wrote: “Could’ve donated the money used for this to impoverished black families, but what do I know.”

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Another Twitter user, Paul Osoro who we reached for comment, wrote: “Won’t solve anything, just creating more divisions.” Flatland requested an interview from a few people who publicly commented but they did not respond.

BLM is ‘An Everyday Thing’

For one of the artists, Avrion Jackson, this project is more than that. 

“This isn’t a one-day thing. This is an everyday thing,” Jackson said. “Yes, I am in your face right now but will I still be respected after this? At the end of the day I’m still Black. I can’t take it off.”

This is the first large-scale project she’s been a part of, having started her art career four years ago. But Black inequities are nothing new. Jackson grew up on Troost Avenue, the city’s historic racial dividing line. She’s seen the division. She fears for her family and constantly checks up on her brother, even at 3 a.m., just to make sure he’s OK. 

In part, her concern for the lives of Black men and young boys motivated her to participate in the project. 

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“It’s way deeper than the art on the street,” she said.

“(Black Lives Matter) has to be seen and heard in order for it to be recognized. Just like McDonald’s advertises 67 times a day… you just have to do the same thing with race and culture, different aspects and different people and things we face on a daily basis.”

Some businesses that operate near where the six murals will be painted support the project. Joey Thomas owns 180V, a barbershop on 18th and Vine. He said the murals will be a daily reminder that he matters.

“It’s an inspiration. It’s a reminder. It’s a mantra,” Thomas said.

Several other business-owners such as Linda Stapleton echoed the sentiment that all lives can’t matter until Black lives do. She’s a lawyer whose firm was on Briarcliff and N. Mulberry. She now works in restorative justice.

“Black lives are the ones being affected right now, so we don’t mind [the mural] at all” Stapleton said.

History of Protest Art

Historically, revolution and protest art have been integral to getting messages across to those in power and their communities. 

“Revolution and protest art are in no way new,” said Kate Meyer, curator at the Spencer Museum of Art. “The big characteristic of it is, it is a reaction to power. Whatever system of power is in place.”

Consider several works by renowned artists. One is Diego Rivera, whose 1928 fresco entitled “The Arsenal” depicts workers as soldiers and includes a cameo of Frida Kahlo, who hands out weapons to these soldiers. 

  • El Tres de Mayo, Francisco de Goya, painting reacts to war
  • Guerilla Girls, artistic commentary on sexism

Another mural, entitled “The Third of May” from 1808 by Francisco Goya, depicted the impact of war. Goya confronted viewers with tragedy with his use of grayish flecks of paint and generally dark-neutral palette, which feeds to the narrative he’s trying to get across: the “dark realities of resistance,” according to the MyModernMET

Stylistically, other artists like Mexican muralist David Alfara Siqueirios used the huge and the bold to get the message across.  

More script-heavy examples have been created by anonymous femenist artist group Guerrilla Girls as well as Jenny Holzer. For instance, one of Holzer’s more recent series – “Vote Your Life” – from 2018 urges the onlookers to consider the message or an idea. 

“How can you be an artist without reflecting the times?” asked musician Nina Simone, whose songs like “Mississippi Goddam” reacted to or commented on racism. In this song, Simone responded to the murder of Medgar Evers, a Black civil rights activist.

Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam” is an artistic commentary on the death of a Civil Rights activist who was murdered in the 1960s. (YouTube)

Artists say this is precisely what the Black Lives Matter murals are doing. Public uprisings, whether in protest or mural form, are a response to the deaths of Black people in cities across the U.S. 

To Meyer, this project feels different from other historic murals. She pointed to its impermanence, unique location and its scale. 

“Putting the art literally in the street is interesting to me,” she said. “It takes something that you don’t notice at a person level and makes it into this giant statement, quite literally, at a bigger level… That’s cool.”

However, because this is a temporary project, she wonders what comes next. Will it spur something that’s more stable and more permanent.

“(Will it be something) that suggests that the ideals of Black Lives Matter have become part of a system of power rather than a voice of protest?” she added.

Protesters React to Mural Project

Not all replies to the announcement were in opposition to the murals, but the discourse surrounding the project has contained a considerable array of opinions from full support to vehement opposition. 

Young KC organizer Oluwatoyin Keji Akinmoladun finds herself, like many others, somewhere in between. 

KCPD police officer reaction to BLM mural project
Michael Corwin, a former Kansas City Police Department sergeant, weighed in. (Imgur)

Akinmoladun has organized several protests against police brutality  since May, when protestors found their water bottles being returned with teargas and bean bag rounds fired by the Kansas City Police Department. 

”Sometimes at protests, it feels like we’re still seen as three-fifths of a person,” Akinmoladun said.

Many Kansas Citians have rallied for Black Lives Matter and were met with violence. Now murals with the same message they were trying to convey are going up in a city that initially met them with resistance. 

“It can be contradictory,” Akinmoladun said.

Nevertheless, she is excited about the murals and sees them as “a way to move forward.”

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Art as a Conduit to Change

Another artist joining the city-wide project says this form of art can be seen as a “conduit to dealing with” current issues. To Michael Toombs, the smattering of Black Lives Matter murals around Kansas City are a way to spur conversation and understanding. 

Toombs, 65, is a seasoned artist in Kansas City who founded the artist collective Storytellers Inc., a multicultural arts program that trains emerging artists. It aims to provide access to services and information to communities that otherwise would not have that opportunity. He is known as an art activist, educator and painter. He grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 

He said Kansas City wasn’t always the land of opportunity. Now is the time to accept responsibility and enact change.

“I would prefer to be on the side of creating opportunities to help us advance beyond this moment and begin the process of appreciating each other,” Toombs said. “This concept, this theme that everybody’s focused on, has actually become a lightning rod for everything that everyone is frustrated about.” 

Growing up in Kansas City, Toombs has seen the good, the bad and the ugly. He acknowledges the people who are working to make his hometown fair and safe for the Black community. But, he said, there are others who aren’t as worried about “equal footing” for residents of color. 

Painting those three words on the street on Sept. 5 aligns with what he practices as an art educator. Art can ignite understanding.

“It’s not just painting a picture, doing a mural, singing a song, doing a dance, making a sculpture… but it is about how you use the experience of human interaction as an art form,” he said. “And through that process, the masterpiece is what they all do collectively together.”

“It’s about looking at what’s going to get us all to take a hard look at ourselves and embrace the truth. That’s the key. You have to embrace the truth in order to see that healing to take place.”


The Black Lives Matter Street Mural Locations Are:

  • 10th and Baltimore
  • 18th and Vine
  • 31st and Troost
  • 63rd and Troost
  • 63rd and Brookside Blvd.
  • NW Briarcliff Pkwy. and N. Mulberry

Catherine Hoffman reports for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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