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How Chicago artists are spreading the message that Black Lives Matter

I biked from McKinley Park to Humboldt Park last Friday to deliver a package to someone. A 30-minute ride up to the northwest side would be good to exercise my winter legs, although the 85-degree temperature was testing my ability to do so with ease. What I saw along the way—and what I’ve seen between the groups of folks at protests—were bright hues, large lettering, artwork, figures, and political statements adorning buildings, windows, and public spaces. These new murals have taken the place of many boarded-up storefronts, gas stations, and grocery stores, covering up the sad plywood texture with words of affirmation and strength.

A few days before my bike ride, I saw “All Lives Matter” painted in lazy black lettering on a Humboldt corner store. Now “Brown people stand with Black lives” is painted over those words. Chicagoans have been empowered by the demonstrations and those emotions are being illustrated across the city.

Enlisting more than 75 artists to work on 15 buildings around Chicago, Barrett Keithley and Missy Perkins launched Paint the City, which creates images of hope and unity on boarded-up storefronts. Its mission is deeply rooted in Black Lives Matter and the support of justice and equality, and so far the group of artists has painted ten buildings on the city’s south and west sides. Keithley explains the inspiration behind the project started because of the boarded-up abandoned buildings that have long existed in the city, prior to the recent protests, in those areas. “Once the civil unrest began, we too wanted to take a stand and use our form of art activism. We want to heal the city through art. We also identified that local businesses and artists were being affected by the pandemic to begin with, so we literally said, ‘Let’s do this!'”

Businesses contact Paint the City and are then partnered with artists who work on their storefront. Perkins and Keithley first began to e-mail chambers of commerce and a few alderpeople who sent them the names of boarded-up businesses. Some businesses have specific requests, like certain images, text, or colors, whereas others simply want to spread positivity to support Black Lives Matter. Paint the City has been working with Somos Arte Collective, an arts and education team, to help with outreach in the communities it serves. “We always make sure the businesses are aware of the murals to create a stronger bond with the artist’s community,” says Keithley. Murals can be found at small businesses like Wildwood Photography, Conexion Salon and Spa, the Denim Lounge, Cafe Cancale, Mojo Spa, and Store B Vintage, as well as larger spaces like the Petco in the South Loop and two Jewel-Osco’s on the south side.

Keithley’s background is in painting and event coordinating. He began to professionally paint six years ago, creating work based on his experiences growing up in Morgan Park. Perkins has an educational background and a master’s degree in art history and museum studies. She has curated in galleries all over Chicago and is now heavily involved in the hip-hop graffiti scene. The duo’s knowledge of curating and art-making combined with their experience working closely with Chicago Loop Alliance has provided insight into their planning moving forward with Paint the City.

Last week, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the artist community that has also been hit hard due to the pandemic. Although the project is already launched, Keithley and Perkins are asking folks to donate so artists involved in Paint the City can be compensated for their time and supplies. Keithley says, “The initiative is also the beginning of our continuous effort to connect local businesses with artists and to beautify our city’s abandoned properties.” And Paint the City hopes to prolong their support of local artists. This ongoing project has the intentions to help fellow artists and to stimulate the local economy through art and entertainment.

In places like New York City, murals are being painted over as they are considered “vandalism.” However, Chicago’s shops and neighborhoods are thriving with support as locals spread their message with art—for now. This is what makes these canvases so precious—they are ephemeral. Because businesses will eventually remove these boarded up walls, the plywood canvas will take the artwork with it. And this is something that all major cities are seeing across the U.S. Arts initiatives are being taken to the streets and to the storefronts lining those streets filled with people seeking justice for the murder of George Floyd and the numerous stolen lives of Black folks around the world.   v

If business owners are interested in participating in the initiative, they can email paintthecity312@gmail.com.

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