Murals in cities around the world gave voice to black protest and resistance in 2020. Arwa Haider investigates the powerful graffiti art that honours George Floyd and others.

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Throughout the summer of 2020, a portrait of the black American George Floyd, who was brutally suffocated to death by police officer David Chauvin on May 25, 2020, appeared on city walls around the world. The majority of these portraits were based on Floyd’s 2016 selfie, which was taken from his own Facebook account; many of them alluded to the agony of his death and his final words. Thousands of miles away, graffiti tributes to Floyd appeared in European cities, as well as Asia, Africa, and Australia.

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–          The music movement that took on racism

–          Striking images of black struggle

–          The images inspired by protest

In Karachi, truck artist Haider Ali painted a portrait inscribed with English tags (‘#blacklivesmatter’) and Urdu song lyrics (“This world doesn’t belong to white or black people, it belongs to the ones with heart”); in Idlib, northwestern Syria, Floyd appeared among the war-ravaged ruins; in Nairobi, he was depicted alongside the Swahili word “haki,” which means “justice” (in a work by Kenyan artist Allan M.

These portraits bear witness to human empathy and the breadth of the multifaceted Black Lives Matter movement. Graffiti is both an ancient form (dating back to writing on the walls in Ancient Greece and Rome) and an important contemporary statement about society; independent graffiti and commissioned public art have also brought BLM into sharp focus. In a year when history is being called into question and a global pandemic has closed conventional galleries and museums, street art highlights a variety of perspectives. The public outrage over Floyd’s murder (captured on video) lingers, but he is rarely an isolated figure; mural memorials also list the names of generations of innocent black US victims, including Floyd. Breonna Taylor (killed by police in her own home on March 13, 2020); 12-year-old Tamir Rice (killed by police on November 22, 2014); and 14-year-old Emmett Till (lynched by racists, 28 August, 1955).

Graffiti has both an ephemeral quality, and an enduring power

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International artists bring their own resonance; the Nairobi mural of Floyd also draws attention to accusations of police brutality in Kenya; Freethinker was adamant that his Berlin mural should honour Floyd’s life, rather than visualise his death, although he added in an interview with NPR: “I saw many, many other guys die by the police in my country, like almost for nothing. So I understand.” “Art is a universal language,” Syrian artist Aziz Asmar, who collaborated with Anis Hamdoun on the Idlib mural, told The National. Our humanity requires us to band together with those who are victims of injustice. When we draw on the walls of demolished structures, We are informing the world that people have died or fled their homes beneath these structures. It demonstrates that there was injustice here, just as there is in America.”

Graffiti has an ephemeral quality as well as an enduring power. “Political graffiti is a critical intervention in urban space, especially as municipalities and police attempt to shut down the streets,” academic and author Susan A Philips (whose books include The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti) recently argued in the LA Times. Even after protests have ended, graffiti serves as a reminder of the protestors’ collective voice… The graffiti will likely be washed away soon, but not before it is documented and becomes part of history.”

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The Cup Foods convenience store in South Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a 911 call led to George Floyd’s police killing, is now adorned with memorial art. Melodee Strong, a local illustrator, muralist, and teacher, created a particularly moving piece titled Mama after Floyd’s dying plea, which depicts grieving black mothers against a backdrop of the US flag.

“I am a mother, and when George cried out for his’mama’ as he took his last breaths, I cried as well,” Strong tells BBC Culture. “That’s what we do when we are in trouble or scared, we cry out for God or our mothers. The police have harassed and mistreated my son. The Cup Foods convenience store in South Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a 911 call led to George Floyd’s police killing, is now adorned with memorial art. Melodee Strong, a local illustrator, muralist, and teacher, created a particularly moving piece titled Mama after Floyd’s dying plea, which depicts grieving black mothers against a backdrop of the US flag.

“I am a mother, and when George cried out for his’mama’ as he took his last breaths, I cried as well,” Strong tells BBC Culture. “That’s what we do when we are in trouble or scared, we cry out for God or our mothers. The police have harassed and mistreated my son.

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Wherever we are, social media brings these streets and statements much closer. Strong promotes the positive power of graffiti and street murals on both a local and global scale (“It’s empowering and gives pride. These images validate a community by depicting its people and culture… When it comes to activism, it’s about creating a space for people to have a voice after suppressing and oppressing that voice for so long”). At the same time, she has made persuasive arguments about how media-savvy artists can overshadow community voices: “I still believe this,” she says. “Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is dealing with this in their own unique way. I am fine with white artists making their mark in history, but I believe BIPOC artists should come first. So often, we are overlooked, and now we are seeing a trend in which companies and patrons are looking for our work; I’m not sure if this is due to ‘white guilt,’ or if it’s just the ‘popular thing to do’ right now, but we need to recognise that BIPOC artists have always been present, and will continue to be.”

According to Strong, there is a need for long-term change: “Don’t just use us now; instead, continue to provide platforms and resources to amplify our voices. It should not just be about appeasing a trend, but also about making an effort to effect real change. More inclusion of us. And when you do, pay attention. And pay attention to several of us. Don’t make one artist the spokesperson for the entire group. We are diverse in our communities, and we have a lot to say in a variety of ways.”

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