George Floyd’s death has inspired powerful protest art: ‘I needed to have another way of seeing him’


Stone broke out the pastels she had long set aside and was inspired to render a portrait of Floyd, who died last month beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. As she drew, all of her feelings “came gushing out” into the artwork, she says, “with an initial burst of creativity from a real place.”

In doing so, she joined thousands of people who have created powerful art in response to Floyd’s death and the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations to protest police violence. From street murals near the White House to editorial comics created near where Floyd died, artists are delivering political messages through often stark imagery.

Stone chose bright tints that make Floyd look luminous. “I was haunted by what had happened to him, so I wanted to draw him in beautiful colors” instead of in black chalk, she says. “I needed to have another way of seeing him for me to feel okay.”

Stone, a founding member of the Afro-punk movement, posted the portrait she calls “the George” on Instagram and soon saw it attract a flurry of likes, including from a member of her band, the New Pornographers, and fellow musicians such as Neko Case and Lumineers bassist Byron Isaacs.

An artist gets to respond as a witness to history, Stone says, noting she is also moved by the larger social movement.

“I’m feeling a strange sense of relief that the systemic racism is being acknowledged,” says Stone, 40, who grew up in Woodstock, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and a Jewish mother from New York and Florida. “Being a brown girl and growing up knowing these things” about racism, she says, “you take it as the status quo.”

This time, she believes the protests and heightened awareness are “going to change policies.” Between the response to police violence and the pandemic, she says, “our whole society shifted in front of our eyes.”

Like Stone, the Washington-based artist Trap Bob, 28, says she is creating work that is both personal and political.

The Black Lives Matter protests “tackle a centuries-old issue that I personally have dealt with my entire life,” she says. On top of that, we are already in unprecedented times due to the pandemic and quarantine, which leaves us reflecting and questioning everything. People also now have the time to fight back and are fed up in many ways about where we are as a society.”

Trap Bob, whose real name is Tenbeete Solomon, likes making activist art, including posters for the Women’s March in 2017. Prompted by the current protests, she created a “Fight the Power” mural at an &Pizza storefront — a few blocks from the yellow “Black Lives Matter” street slogan authorized by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — that features a proud, pink-haired woman. “I’m all about bold, eye-catching designs that inspire and bring light to my audience,” she says, “especially in darker times.”

“My work is always women-centric, and I aim to push boundaries and labels,” the muralist says. “In all the discussion about police brutality, a lot of times women are overlooked in these situations. As much as drawing women is a form of expression for me, I am also representing us all and making sure we are heard.”

At other sites around the city, dozens of volunteers painted more than 3,000 square feet of boarded storefronts as part of the #Cre8Change initiative. These Black Lives Matter murals are coordinated by Design Foundry, a Maryland-based event company, and the Denver Smith Foundation, named for a black Southern University student fatally shot by authorities amid campus unrest in 1972.

One poignant #Cre8Change mural said “Denver Smith Matters” in bright-blue letters and told Smith’s tragic story.

“The ‘8′ in our hashtag honors the last eight-plus minutes of Mr. Floyd’s life,” says Denver Smith’s nephew, Denver Terrance, who launched the foundation last year in part to “bring attention to the fact that the killing of unarmed black people on camera with no justice has been happening for over 40 years.”

In the spirit of Washington’s yellow street slogan, colorful “Black Lives Matter” wording was painted on a street in Charlotte — each letter its own thematic work of art. And in Sacramento, a yellow and black “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the median of the Capitol Mall, steps from the seat of power.

Other artists are depicting the protests through a journalistic lens. Ruth Tam, a Washington-based illustrator and reporter, created live artwork Saturday to accompany her prose for a DCist article.

Sketchbooks in tow, Tam drew demonstrators and was struck by the protest signs. “The very first sign I saw was at the base of the Lincoln Memorial: ‘When does our American Dream begin?’ ” she says. “To ask this question, on the National Mall of all places, feels very provocative to me. It’s a reminder that for many Americans, the ideals memorialized in our national monuments are not applied equally.”

“At the time I was working on the comic, the riots and looting had started, a police precinct burned down, white-supremacist groups were rolling into town and, adding to the chaos, every minute seemed to bring some new drama,” McGinty says. “There was an overwhelming amount of information to sort through.

“It’s impossible to give a complete overview in just a handful of panels, so I just focused on amplifying black voices and showing how smart, engaged and resilient people can be,” the cartoonist says. “I wanted to share viewpoints and show off some of the grass-roots efforts that might not make the evening news.”



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