The convergence of art and politics has become even more prevalent as of late. Quite literally, an intersection in Tampa now bears a mural in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, featuring the original designs of Tampa-based Black artists.
The mural was painted on June 27 at E Cass and Jefferson streets as part of Mayor Jane Castor’s Art on the Block initiative, in which artists painted five separate intersection murals throughout the city on the theme of unity an inclusiveness.
Artists Cam Parker, Cecilia Lueza, Anthony Freese and James Vann were asked to paint the other four intersection murals with a team of volunteers.
The effort to get the Black Lives Matter-inspired mural painted was more complex. It wasn’t originally planned to be part of the Art on the Block Mural Day.
But on June 12, historian Gloria Jean Royster sent an email to the city requesting a Black Lives Matter mural to be painted downtown.
Copied on that email were Tony Krol and Michelle Sawyer, husband and wife artists who paint together as Illsol, have a Tampa gallery called Mergeculture and are the founders of Art UP, an art placement and programming organization. They have worked with the city and county on many occasions, so they were sought out to help gather artists for the project.
Coincidentally, a week before, Art UP created a new curation board of Black artists called New Roots Collective in an effort to bring more diversity into public art.
The pieces were falling into place to have a mural painted by Black artists. Rather than the letters spelling out the words, the concept was to have artists create their own designs that would make up one large mural in the intersection.
But there were hiccups along the way. Although they emailed the mayor’s office requesting to make the mural, Krol said they waited for approval and for a location before they could pull some artists together. He credits Royster and Tim Bennett, outreach coordinator of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, for helping “move the email up the chain” and organizing the mural.
Approval didn’t come until the Wednesday before Mural Day. Krol scrambled to get some artists together, many from the New Roots Collective, which is led by Melvin Halsey and Reece Fernando Moore, who each came up with their designs on the fly.
On the Friday before Mural Day, Krol got word that a group of volunteers would be coming on Mural Day to paint the phrase “Black Lives Matter” near the intersection mural. On Saturday, Krol, Sawyer and another artist friend painted the outline for the letters that were filled in by volunteers, who also helped paint the intersection murals and included children and Castor.
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The day spent painting the intersection mural was full of joy. Krol called the way it came together “amazing.”
“This opened the door for many new Black artists in our community to have their voices heard for public art projects,” he said.
The participating artists were Melvin Halsey, Reece Fernando Moore, Ron Simmons (Ron S. Dot), Cody Iffla (Jitt Brodie), Markanthony Little, Meclina Priestly, Tyrone Beyobe (Beyo), Briauna Walker, Melissa Koby and Jason Henson (Convo Unedited).
The Times caught up with several of those artists at the mural. Here’s what they said about their works and the experience.
Cody Iffla, known as Jitt Brodie (@jittbrodie), painted Angela Davis on his section of the mural.
“She was a very important, instrumental Black voice in the community. She’s one of the last original members of the Black Panther Party, she did a lot to liberate and help the Black community and the civil rights movement,” he said. “I wanted to show her and the message that she spoke on, which was if you liberate the mind you’ll be able to liberate society, which I believe is completely true. Because racism is a mental state.”
Melvin Halsey Jr. (@lang.stn) painted a tribal mask after he scrapped his original plan after suffering heat exhaustion. He built on the concept that his friend, Reece Fernando Moore, has that “our ancestors are watching.” He put his artistic stamp on an African-style mask.
Meclina Priestly (@meclinaart) is a micrography artist who creates portraiture comprised of tiny calligraphy. Her intuitive piece of the mural incorporates a little bit of micrography, but has leaves that say living kindness and healing, compassion and growing into a place of deeper healing. She had the five or six people helping her paint to sign it “because it’s about community and relationships.”
“It’s important for people to tie in their experience and then go, ‘I was part of something really big.‘”
Ron Simmons (@ronsdot) a fourth-generation Tampa native, knows the historical significance of the neighborhood where the mural is located. It was a thriving Black area until 1967, when after the killing of a Black teenager by the police, riots broke out.
He painted a young boy in a gas mask. He uses it as a sign of resilience that kids wear to “keep out the negative influences that could alter their childhoods and their progression as kids.”
The phrase “I Am a Man” is painted there, a quote referencing a 1968 sanitation protest in Memphis. Workers were mistreated, their equipment was faulty and so they began protesting and were eventually joined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Melissa Koby (@mkoby_) always focuses on women in her artwork. So it was only natural for her to recreate one of her prints depicting a Black woman, titled Keep Your Head Up. She said she tries to represent everyone but her point of view is that of a Black woman.
“I know my own experiences, that every single day I don’t know if I’m going to be crying, laughing or totally devastated at something that triggers me,” she said. “My platform is to encourage everyone, so this is a letter to my fellow women. If you’re struggling, if you’re going through the day with a heavy heart, but you’re forced to look normal for everyone else’s comfort, I hear you and understand you, but just keep your head up.”
Jason Henson goes by Convo Unedited (@convounedited). He also depicted a tribal mask. He said it felt good to be part of the project. He believes that making art in response to Black Lives Matter helps with the pain that so many people are going through.
“I believe there’s a tribal element that runs throughout culture even today. We’re at a point now where survival and freedoms and liberties are being compromised and so we’re all tending to take sides, even though I don’t think that’s the answer, so this is a symbolic way of expressing that.”
Briauna Walker (Anatural_exchange) is a flight attendant for Spirit airlines, so she included an airplane in her section of the mural, which was the first she ever painted. It says “Rise Above,” with a hand reaching up from a body of water.
“The water symbolizes the despair of the community right now. Everybody is going through a struggle and trying to make it out of a tumultuous situation together and try to get all of us to understand that we have to have each other’s back in this,” Walker said. “Seeing all walks of life to come together for one cause, for people who have always been feeling like we’re not seen, is amazing. The hand is the community coming together reaching for a higher cause.”