St. Petersburg’s Black Lives Matter mural arrived on the street in front of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum with a mix of support, enthusiasm, controversy and division.
Some people are against the message. Others think it should have been in a more prominent location than at 2240 Ninth Ave. S.
But visit the mural just about any day of the week and you’ll find people of all ages and races taking it in.
“The mural creates an outside exhibition during this time of (COVID-19) that provides the opportunity for folks to come in and casually interface with the art,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, the museum’s executive director. “And what more meaningful place than where Black lives mattered first.”
It was a massive undertaking to get the mural painted. It was funded by the City of St. Petersburg in coordination with the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance — which produces the Shine Mural Festival — to assemble the artists and volunteers.
The list of artists came together in less than a week, and the mural was painted in less than eight hours before it was unveiled at the museum’s Juneteenth celebration.
The Vitale Bros. — Johnny and Paul Vitale and Nick and Jason Kekllas — worked overnight on June 17 to paint and prime the crisp outline of the letters, using a lift and a projector to shine the letters onto the street.
Each artist painted a mini mural in their assigned letter, inspired by the movement. They each shared their experience with the Times.
Cheryl Weber, Tampa
B in Black, follow @jujmo
Weber paints her bubbly, happy murals around Tampa Bay under the moniker Jujmo. When she got the call to participate in the Black Lives Matter mural, her approach was to stay true to her “escapist” style, full of clouds with happy faces. She said applying her cute aesthetic to something powerful was meaningful and she hoped to “cancel the negativity and bring a positive image to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
“I just hope people grow to understand and not be filled with hate when they see the colors and the work in the mural.”
John Gascot, St. Petersburg
L in Black, follow @jgascot
Gascot’s concept was liberty. So it was serendipitous that he painted the letter L. As a gay Puerto Rican man, liberty and freedom are common themes in the full-time artist’s work. So he painted a Statue of Liberty-esque arm and the word “Free.”
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“I always think that history is something that happened, but today in 2020 we are living through history. It’s upsetting but it’s also invigorating to be part of the change.”
Cam Parker, Tampa
A in Black, follow @painkillercam
Parker focused on iconic Black hairstyles and accessories, like big hoop earrings, in his A and painted a woman with an Afro right at the top, with the words “Black Lives Matter” beginning in the hair. He said his intention was to give people of color a way to celebrate the “way we put ourselves together.” He said he noticed young Black girls that visited the mural finding themselves in his piece.
He also cited Nina Simone’s famous quote that “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.”
“Right now is just a really nutso, beautiful, inclusive, scary, weird, squishy time, but my family always talks about trying to find the bright spot.”
Catherine Weaver, St. Petersburg
C in Black, follow @uniquelyoriginalarts
The St. Petersburg native’s gallery, Uniquely Original Art Studio, is just blocks away from the mural in a building her grandfather built. She chose the C for change and painted the phrase “we must all make the choice to choose to change” to “encourage empowerment rather than power to the people, because it’s an individual’s choice to change.”
“For all of this to be right here in my backyard, it’s historical and personal to me. This was the hub of the African American community. This is the perfect place for it. It gives unity and pride and history. I just applaud everyone who was involved.”
Skylar Suarez, Tampa
K in Black, follow @nuclearskyart
Suarez, who is in information technology by trade, got into making art just a few years ago. She now paints under the name Nuclear Sky. Her concept was “time is running out and the world is watching,” so she painted the hands of a clock and an orb that was originally supposed to be an eye, but ended up looking more like Earth.
She was glad to be part of the movement while safely distancing from the other artists.
“I think the mural is going to be a good reminder to people, even if things do get solved in the next year, this will still be here as a reminder of how far we’ve come and I hope that happens.”
Jason Harvin, Riverview
L in Lives, follow @waywardwalls
Harvin started painting as a hobby on days off from his job as a project manager for computer installs in hotels. His crisp, geometric line style and strong social media presence caught the attention of the Vitale Bros., who suggested him for the mural. He stuck to his style in the letter, with help from his girlfriend, Vera Herrera.
He said he’s not sure he’ll be a part of something more meaningful in his life. Harvin was especially touched by the reactions of children.
“We had our parents giving heavy life instructions. To have the conversation shift in children being able to see the work and appreciate it from a foundational level, maybe they won’t have to be taught the same lesson on how to live that we were taught growing up. From that perspective, I can’t ask for more.”
Laura Spencer, St. Petersburg
I in Lives, follow @lauraspencerillustrates
Spencer is a digital artist, so her concept for the letter I was to make something inspired by vector graphics, with clean lines legible from great heights. Since Crayola had recently released a new set of colors representing a wide range of skin tones, she rendered a brown crayon, making the wrapper yellow and green, the colors of her favorite team, the St. Petersburg Rowdies.
Spencer found the experience to be more educational than artistic as she discovered her own inherent privileges and biases. She was also introduced to the Carter G. Woodson Museum, which she calls a “gem.”
“It was a pleasure to work and meet with so many different artists in such a multicultural environment. The experience was part of being a piece of the whole, and it’s about awakening and awareness.”
James Hartzell, St. Petersburg
V in Lives, follow @artbyjamese
Hartzell is a sign and chalkboard painter who makes messages like “Sunshine on My Mind.” The Atlanta native has spent a lot if time in Jamaica, where instead of staying shuttered away in a resort, he met the locals. He heard Bob Marley verses “thrown around like Bible verses,” so when fellow painter Leo Gomez suggested him for the mural, he chose the lyrics “One Love, One Heart” and put the number 1 in a heart. He was assisted by Faith King.
He thinks the mural will bring people together and hopes that it helps in the healing and educational process.
“It was a blessing to be involved. I was looking for a way to use my artistic platform to stand in solidarity, but didn’t I want it to feel hollow. It felt good to be able to express something in real solidarity.”
Eric Hornsby and Meclina Priestly, Tampa
Hornsby, who goes by ESH, asked friend and art collaborator Priestly to join him. The pair came up with the concept to make the figure Mother Earth, or Mother Africa. Priestly contributed by painting in African runes that symbolize empowerment and education.
Hornsby said the energy level during the effort was incredible and likened it to a metaphor for the movement.
“We need more change, that’s a fact,” he said. “But we also need to celebrate our victories.”
Priestly said that doing something of this magnitude creates “a bigger platform to have larger conversations, so that it can go past ‘we need to change something.‘”
“Now we can sit at a table and say, ‘Here are some things we think if implemented would promote growth,‘” she said. “And the mural is growth. Fifty years ago, this wouldn’t have been allowed to happen.”
Jade Jackson, St. Petersburg
S in Lives, follow @avacatoto
For Jackson, participating in the mural marks a milestone as an artist. It is the first mural she ever painted. She felt that it was significant that the organizers reached out to local artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
Jackson chose to paint jellyfish in her S, inspired by ones she’d seen at the Georgia Aquarium. Knowing that the mural’s location is in a residential neighborhood, she wanted to paint something fun that kids would appreciate.
“I was really excited to have a way to give back to the community and it was nice to find a way to show support,” she said.
James Kitchens, Largo
M in Matter, follow @freestyletattoo
James Kitchens, who signs his work Freeman, has been painting “graffiti before they started calling it murals.” He sells work and is a tattoo artist at Positive Vibes Only, just a few blocks from the site of the mural. He was asked to participate early on, so he was able to choose his letter. He picked the M because “matter” is the word in the phrase that means the most to him.
His portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. glides through each bar of the letter, his face turned upward. He chose MLK because he meant so much to people of all races and included the text from the “I Have a Dream” speech, although he feels that message is not being received, because “everybody can hear but no one is listening.”
Kitchens said that it was an honor to create in front of the museum, and that the experience was laden with mixed emotions, ranging from excitement to feeling heartbroken over the deaths of unarmed Black people.
“The message should be, I’m Black and I’m Proud, not Black Lives Matter.”
David Cabassa, Tampa
A in Matter, follow @megasupremo
Cabassa, who works under the moniker Mega Supremo, drew from his experience attending protests and screen printing protest signs. The graphic designer and illustrator painted protest signs that read “Stop Killing Us” and “Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamps,” which is a lyric from a Public Enemy song. He painted characters that symbolize the diverse Black community.
At the top of the A, he painted a three-fingered fist that reads “Luv” to contrast the violent meaning a fist can portray. Attending protests taught him that the fist should be raised with the left hand, since that is the side the heart is on.
“It feels pointless to make art that doesn’t reflect this, and since art is all I can really do to provide and interact with the world, it’s taken on more of a political element. It’s hard for me to untangle those two things right now.”
Von Walters, St. Petersburg
First T in Matter, follow @von.walters
Plum Howlett, St. Petersburg
Second T in Matter, follow @pvo_tattooshop
Walters and Howlett work with James Kitchens at Positive Vibes Only, the tattoo shop. They got the call to paint a letter late — the day the mural had to be completed.
Walters painted the raised fist, with broken chains, and says that the message speaks for itself.
“It’s a blessing and it’s still hitting me,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of time to change, but the ball is rolling. It’s slow, but you can’t stop it.”
Howlett calls his piece a “messy message.” He rendered a headless Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the earth because Howlett considers his activism, which ultimately cost him an NFL career, a “selfless sacrifice.” He believes that if Kaepernick’s message would have been received, George Floyd might not have been killed. He painted a portrait of Floyd’s face in the T and a rose growing from the concrete, a reference to a poem by Tupac Shakur.
He spent most of his time talking to other artists and feeling the vibe, happy to be a “part of history in our city.”
Melanie Posner, St. Petersburg
E in Matter, follow @therealmelpoz
Posner, who is a full-time artist and has painted murals around the city, said that after the death of George Floyd and reports of police brutality, she was so heartbroken that she lost her creative drive and couldn’t work. The opportunity to participate in the mural lit an artistic spark and she decided to represent a beautiful, powerful Black woman. She emphasized the word “strength” because “women as a whole are strong.”
Posner said she was honored to be chosen as one of the artists and will never forget the experience.
“This is the most important thing I’ve done in my career so far.”
Daniel Barojas, St. Petersburg
R in Matter, follow @r5imaging
Barojas chose the R for two reasons: His graffiti name is R5 and he liked that it was the last letter. He was inspired by the continued dedication of protesters who march daily, so he painted a protester marching off into a hopeful future. To back up that concept, he blended the words “futurequality.”
Barojas credits the city for making the statement that Black Lives Matter. Still, he says, it’s just a mural. He wants to see change happen through legislation.
“But I really do hope that this will spark some changes.”