Even as statues commemorating the worst atrocities of the last thousand years continue to fall amid ongoing protests sparking by the police killing of George Floyd, several major cities have erected their own works of art (if only temporarily) to celebrate the movement for black lives sweeping the U.S. and several European countries.
Last week, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., quietly commissioned eight artists to paint “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in 50-foot-high letters across two blocks leading to the White House. On Tuesday, the New Yorker offered us a behind-the-scenes look at how the clandestine project unfolded and the excitement and anxiety of the workers who were “sworn to secrecy,” and described how the project was aided in its final moments by strangers who woke up to find yellow paint being rolled up and down a long stretch of Sixteenth Street.
Other cities soon after followed suit, from Oakland to Albany to Seattle to Dallas, a dozen or more so far. The works aren’t done using stencils, or even on streets of the same width, and so naturally, no two are alike. Projects of this scale might normally take weeks of planning, but each city wanting its own mural was imbued with a sense of urgency brought on not only by a desire to show solidarity in the moment, but to match the speed and spontaneity with which D.C.’s mural seemed to appear. Bowser had set the pace.
In the end, it’s only paint, and local governments have other more pressing matters to dispense with—such as how to handle the actual demands of said protesters, most of whom wish to see considerable sums of money diverted from police budgets.
Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, took a different approach. Whereas other cities had gone for sheer visibility—painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in a bright Blockbuster yellow—Charlotte’s Tryon Street is now covered in a variety of artistic styles, each letter the unique vision of a different artist, nearly all of whom are black. And if only because our brains have a propensity for patternicity, for many people, one of these letters stands out more clearly than the rest once you finally reach the altitude needed to view the work in its entirety: the “K.”
My first reaction to seeing Marvel Comics superhero Deadpool inside the Charlotte mural was similar to others online. Evan Narcisse, author of Rise of the Black Panther (and a former io9 writer), asked the same question on Twitter that had initially run through my mind: Why not a black superhero like Luke Cage, or maybe even the most obvious choice: Black Panther? Deadpool is, after all, not black. That is to say, he is undeniably white. Thanks to the recent, widely acclaimed films about the titular character, most everyone on the planet knows this. (Note: The “B” is actually a painting of Storm from the X-Men, by artist Dammit Wesley, with a word bubble reading: “Why do I not matter? Why doesn’t America love me?”)
What possible meaning could the comically psychopathic mercenary with a big mouth hold for a movement dedicated to upending society’s oft-fatal disregard for black lives?
The black artists who painted these murals, of course, don’t owe me—or anyone, frankly—an explanation. But Garrison Gist, the artist behind the Deadpool painting, wanted people to better understand his motivation.
Through Gist’s eyes, the unorthodox hero Deadpool represents someone who understands that “order” should not be the ultimate goal of a society under which all other goals must bow. In an uprising marked by unwavering disobedience in the face of extreme state violence, Deadpool could be, for some, a relatable anti-authoritarian symbol, particularly given the exaggerated importance that people in power have placed on the need for protesters to remain civil.
When socially “acceptable” tactics completely fail to achieve the goal of justice, some superheroes are willing to hang up their capes and accept the boundaries society has placed on the use of their powers. (This concept played a huge part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Three.) Deadpool is the opposite of that line of thinking. He’s more likely to wipe his ass with the rule book and get justice anyway, even when it’s practically out of reach.
“I really wanted to use him as kind of like a metaphor for our generation with what’s going on right now,” Gist said. “When you think of Deadpool, you think of rebellious, radical, outspoken, and on top of all of that, he goes against all the norms when it comes to superheroes. He challenges all those boundaries and ideas that we’ve set in place when we think of superheroes.”
“When you look at our generation right now with this movement, we’re being radical, we’re being rebellious, we’re being outspoken, we’re doing whatever we got to do to make sure our voices are heard so we see the changes that we want made actually happen,” he said.
The painting also has an “easter egg,” Gist said. “If you don’t really read the comics, you wouldn’t know this, but in the comics, Deadpool is considered to be either bisexual or pansexual,” he said.
“It’s Pride Month,” he said. “Personally, I have a lot of friends and some family members that are part of the LGBTQ community, so I felt like along with the first reason and metaphor for why I chose to use Deadpool, I felt like this would be a cool way to honor them, and let them know they’re just as much apart of the movement as well.”
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.