The Revolutionary Power of Street Art: Dallas BLM Protests

Written by Trace Miller

Cue the chorus of the anti-pop art song “You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquieros to Andy Warhol),” by the leftist hip-hop band the Coup: “A rebellion is both love and lust / And a riot is when lightning hits the right spot / And my painting isn’t finished till it kills you / And it makes you feel more powerful than pills do.”

Love, sometimes, is a hug and a kiss; sometimes, a spanking. Lust, on the other hand, in the words of Dante Alighieri, is “a place where every light is muted, / which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest, / when it is battered by opposing winds”; a “hellish hurricane, which never rests” and “drives on the spirits with its violence”—“wheeling and pounding” and harassing them. The lightning, of course, was the video of George Floyd’s murder, and it hit the right spot: the tinderbox of the coronavirus economic blight, which is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

The lightning, of course, was the video of George Floyd’s murder, and it hit the right spot: the tinderbox of the coronavirus economic blight, which is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Dallas, the first weekend since George Floyd’s death. Downtown is an ululation, a bellow, a howl of pain. The revolution beckons. Hundreds of demonstrators, of every age and race, exhausted and exasperated by two and a half months of lockdown, gathered to express their anger at the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of Floyd’s suffocation. By extension, their anger was also aimed toward four centuries of oppression in the United States. Enough is enough, they yelled; stop killing us, they screamed. They chanted until they were teargassed, they fought until they were shot in the head by ‘less-lethal’ projectiles. Windows were smashed. Retail stores were looted. Barricades were built; fires, lit; police cars, overturned and burned.

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / Art by Julia deLeon

In the following days and weeks, neoliberal media institutions blamed the rioting and looting from that first weekend on white supremacist, alt-right, and anarcho-capitalist agitators; Republican Party propaganda mouthpieces in turn blamed the destructive demonstrations on Antifa. Socialist publications, meanwhile, exegeted the smashing and burning as a protest—in a Freudian, sublimated sort of way—against a capitalistic system that bought and sold people of color in the past and continues to oppress them in the present. There were those, however, who didn’t care whence came the whirlwind, rather, simply hoped to bring healing as soon as possible.

“I was seeing the rioters down here destroying everything,” Levi Hollandsworth, a Dallas-based muralist (who has travelled to nearly 100 countries and served in the U.S. Air Force and the National Guard) told me last week. “I don’t see the point of destroying a city that the businesses have nothing to do with the police. I guess you could make an argument for that, but I don’t see it. I don’t think that the merchants down here, providing a service to the city—they shouldn’t be the ones brunting the force of the mob. I think they should be taking that to the police station and City Hall, and sticking it to there. It really made me sick.”

Unabashedly progressive, pro-Black Lives Matter, and anti-police (albeit not in favor of abolishing the police entirely), Hollandsworth decided to spark hope and create unity. “I wanted to provide a positive message and I wanted to beautify the city,” he shrugged. “I believe in peace. Together, we’re a lot stronger… There’s a time and a place for [violence]. But as Americans, I think the time that we live in, I think we need to be coming together instead of being divided.” So he broke a mirror at a party.

“I believe in peace. Together, we’re a lot stronger… There’s a time and a place for [violence]. But as Americans, I think the time that we live in, I think we need to be coming together instead of being divided.” So he broke a mirror at a party.

Hollandsworth wanted to create an interactive mural incorporating a reflective mosaic portrait of his childhood hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. The idea was ingenious and therefore simple: he wanted viewers to approach the mural and see their reflection in the King portrait, a mosaic made with shards from the shattered mirror. He wanted viewers to then wonder what the artist was trying to say with the large, black letters painted behind the mosaic; so that the viewer would back up and see the letters reading SEE THE FUTURE IN YOU. Inside, the black letters were filled with MLK quotes painted in small, white letters.

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / Sculpture by Tony Tasset / Graffiti by public

“So I was trying to get people to see themselves in [King’s] face,” he concluded. “Like, where they could make a connection of, ‘OK, this is the way he thought. Am I thinking this way, or can I think this way?’”

Naturally, not everyone can have the diction and grace of Dr. King. But everyone can strive to emulate him, to construct progress, no matter how small. It’s a bold statement, he argued, but imperative.

“If you’re an artist, you can’t be neutral,” he repeated. “You have to have a voice. That’s the whole reason why you’re speaking out, or you’re saying something, or you’re expressing something—it’s because you have thoughts in your head, you have ideas that you want to express or you want to convey. That, to me, is an artist. If you’re just making pretty pictures—that’s cool, I mean, anybody can do that. But are you making something that’s thought-provoking, and that’s eliciting thought? Or that’s creating inspiration for other people to change their minds?”

“If you’re just making pretty pictures—that’s cool, I mean, anybody can do that. But are you making something that’s thought-provoking, and that’s eliciting thought?” 

* * *

I interviewed Hollandsworth beneath his second downtown mural—a lysergic, aesthetically Celtic, acrylic rendering of the Tree of Life, painted on the boarded-up window of a downtown Dallas Irish pub. (His first mural, the MLK mural, was gone, its plywood board removed.) Like his first, the second comprised a small part of a large project: the Dallas Army of Artists.

The Dallas Army of Artists was organized by Isaac Davies, a muralist and graffiti artist who’s traveled across the country creating murals focused on issues like neighborhood revitalization, community outreach, endangered animals, juvenile justice, and the Black Lives Matters movement. A Dallasite since the 1980s, as a kid, Davies found street art through hip-hop and skateboarding culture. In April 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray, he went to Baltimore to paint a mural with Gray’s friends. He’s also painted numerous murals in Deep Ellum, a historic, music-rich neighborhood in Dallas where Black and white musicians and artists mixed before the end of segregation.

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / Art by Carlos Martinez

Davies organized the Army of Artists both in response to Floyd’s murder, police brutality, and the rioting in Dallas; and in order to amplify the unheard voices of the Black Lives Matter movement. The army’s ranks quickly swelled to 600 street painters, graffiti artists, muralists, businesses, community leaders, and activists. The process was simple: Downtown Dallas, Inc. introduced artists to property owners. Property owners commissioned the artists, as more or less specific as they desired. The artists then spread out across downtown and the surrounding historic neighborhoods, such as Deep Ellum, covering hundreds of plywood scars with lush, poignant, and thought-provoking artworks. 

“I did think of how can art help this situation, for Black Lives Matter,” Davies told me over the phone. “Humans are visual creatures. And sometimes it requires being able to explore content that can get a reaction from a different place in someone’s mind, or their heart. So they might have a very rigid view of a certain subject—and art can help make that view less rigid and more fluid.”

“Humans are visual creatures. And sometimes it requires being able to explore content that can get a reaction from a different place in someone’s mind, or their heart.”

“That’s what art and murals, for me, has always been about,” he added. “Being able to push boundaries of what’s being talked about.”

All art has the ability to cause reflection and rumination. But street art has a special ability to spark conversations; it brings passersby (oftentimes complete strangers) into proximity, both spatially and existentially, as they experience an artwork together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Street artworks oftentimes present viewers with unorthodox compositions, shaping conversations between viewers (as they try to comprehend the artwork); moreover, street artworks sometimes invite interactivity and participation, creating dialogue between viewers and the composition itself (like, Hollandsworth’s mural). Street art’s public accessibility combined with its dialogical capacities, make it the perfect art form for the rebellion. Which, you will remember, consists of both love and lust.

Dialogue, too, consists of love. “Dialogue cannot exist,” writes Paulo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.” Freire, in a footnote, adds that, “I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution [or rebellion], because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For me, the revolution… is not irreconcilable with love. On the contrary: the revolution is made by people to achieve their humanization.”

Revolution and love, love and dialogue, dialogue and street art—all are indelibly intertwined. A revolution improperly charged with lust is a riot; a revolution improperly apportioned with love, a reformation. But the revolution that is properly apportioned with love and lust, dialogue and violence, reformation and destruction, achieves humanization for the dehumanized, liberation for the oppressed. The revolution’s best weapon is dialogue. Street art—poetically anarchic and highly visible—is an extremely effective initiator of dialogue. Street art sparks dialogue that sparks more dialogue, which sparks more dialogue, ad infinitum. The revolution’s best weapon is graffiti. And yet, dialogue is becoming increasingly rare in our increasingly digital age.

The revolution’s best weapon is dialogue.

When I write “increasingly digital,” I don’t mean increasingly technological—although our age is, indeed, increasingly technological, and the rise of technology is almost indubitably contributing to the decline of dialogue. Rather, when I write “increasingly digital,” I mean increasingly binary. Our society increasingly operates on ones and zeros, if you will: pro and anti; yin and yang; black and white; cut and dry; either and or. And, by the inversion of praxis, our minds, too, have begun to experience the world and process it digitally. One hardly needs glance at the state of contemporary political discourse to discover perfect specimens of this phenomenon. The pervasiveness of this digitization is manifested in the politicization of science (‘To mask up or not to mask up?’) and the polarization of the media (‘To watch CNN or Fox News? To read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times? To peruse the New Yorker or National Review?’).

Ontology and morality aren’t digital; social issues are rarely binary. Rather, the earth, the universe, and the fullness thereof are analog. When our social paradigm is binary; when our cultural matrix operates along a binary; we fail to think critically (in both senses of that word: analytically and cynically). Instead, we think digitally, in the ones and zeros of “pro-this must equal anti-that or pro-that must equal anti-this.” But the world doesn’t operate on discrete values and alternating ones and zeros; it flourishes on waves of infinite possibilities. So that when we extricate ourselves from the contemporary binary and operate beyond black and white, we access waves of infinite data points. We begin to think critically. We begin to think analogically. By denying, ignoring, or forgetting the world’s analogical modality, we lose not only infinite shades of grey but infinite shades of every other color under the sun.

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / Art by Osei Ovid

Only through dialogical relationships can we rewire our synapses to think analogically, to truly behold one another and really experience the world. Dialogue builds bridges, understanding, and comprehension. Dialogue brings justice. Dialogue is love, is revolution—which ultimately brings the humanization of the dehumanized and the liberation of the oppressed.

Engaging with art is a perhaps the only way to renormalize dialogical relating and regain an analogical understanding of the world. Art is a conversation starter. But engaging with street art is the premier method of regaining our analogical understanding of the world. Street art is anarchic: devoid of gatekeeping, free to public consumption and criticism. As Hollandsworth put it, street art offers inspiration for any passerby to change their mind. Not that one has to change their mind. And not that all things aren’t black and white, cut and dry. But as the ascetic Simone Weil writes in a 1942 letter to her beloved mentor, “in everything that exists there is most of the time more truth than falsehood.”

Street art is anarchic: devoid of gatekeeping, free to public consumption and criticism.

* * *

“The moment that abstaining from choice is itself looked upon as a choice and punished or praised as such, the artist is willy-nilly impressed into service,” Albert Camus declares in his brief, 1957 essay “Create Dangerously.” “To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing.”

The foregoing thought is fundamental to the thesis he elucidates throughout the entirety of the essay: the purpose of contemporary art. After exploring l’art pour l’art and socialist realism—first one, then the other—he rejects them both because they reject reality, then posits four attributes of true art:

“True art,” he writes, “is called upon to unite.”

“The aim of art,” he claims, “is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all.”

“Art advances between two chasms,” he observes, “which are frivolity and propaganda.” (Which is to say, that when art lost its essentially religious purpose, it necessarily swore fealty to politics, as Walter Benjamin argues in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” And as a political functionary in a postmodern world, art is often reduced either to frivolously ironizing the cognitively dissonant present. Or, to glorifying the past; spreading disinformation to augment cognitive dissonance and maniacally engineer a domesticated, anodyne present; and preaching the gospel of a paradisiacal future.)

Camus ties this all together by essentially stating that art must speak truth to power.

But what does the artist do in an age when, according to the estimable Rudy Giuliani, “truth isn’t truth”? What does the artist do when truth itself is divisive, not because it’s hard to swallow, but because one or the other half of our digital society denies its existence stuck on a binary?

What does the artist do when truth itself is divisive, not because it’s hard to swallow, but because one or the other half of our digital society denies its existence stuck on a binary?

The question complicates itself when we involve phrases like “silence is complicity” and employ technologies like social media to spread the word. Social media, like street art, is anarchic: free for all. Which means that it is difficult to excuse ignorance or neutrality, since all information is at the user’s fingertips. But social media also makes it difficult to absorb any information at all because it all might be fake news. And since we’ve thrown in the phrase “silence is complicity,” let’s not forget that “silence is violence.” So that we’re all seen as choosing if we abstain from choosing. So that we’re all impressed into service. So that we’re all hurling ourselves onto one side or the other of an issue to avoid violent complicity and then using exaggerated or fake news propagated by social media to justify our positions on issues we never even took time to understand at all.

Calling out violent silence isn’t bad, by no means, rather, it’s good and necessary. But it is radically divisive, a real-life enactment of Jesus’s statement that, “he that is not with me is against me.” You can only serve one master. Who will it be? God? Or Mammon? So that given that art is supposed to unite and speak truth to power, and given that truth is divisive, the question then becomes: What gives? Unity? Or truth? It’s into this toxic brew that contemporary artists must wade.

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / Artist Unknown

On July 6, after I first met Hollandsworth (who was then painting his MLK mural), I walked east a block and stumbled across an enormous portrait of George Floyd. I approached the artist, who was busy applying finishing touches, and asked him for his name and number. I want to write about you, I explained. OK, he said. A few weeks later, I called him to ask what inspired his portrait, which still boldly stares at passersby.

“I really just wanted to put the mural out there for what it was,” he replied. “Because I saw a call for art. And there were businesses that wanted artists to come out and—I get it—beautify the city through putting rainbows and hearts and your lunch special and WE’RE OPEN and stuff right there. But that wasn’t what was calling me… I was just trying to say, ‘Look at this man’s face.’”

Martinez moved to Dallas three years ago. He’s painted streets during the day (and during the night, he chuckled,) and has painted murals in Belgium and across Europe. When I asked him if he believed he has a duty these days, as an artist, to unite people and speak truth to power, he didn’t hesitate.

“Artists have always had a special duty,” he said. “Not only by taking on projects like this where you’re putting it out to the masses, and you’re not just working on something in your garage on some twelve-by-twelve that fits real nice on a wall, but something big for people to drive by that understand the situation, [or] that don’t understand the situation, so they can open their eyes to what’s really going on.”

When I ask him what it’s like creating at a time when speaking truth to power and uniting the people are adamantly opposed, he again doesn’t pause.

“For me, it’s not about worrying about that thin line [between speaking truth and uniting people], it’s about doing what’s right.”

“For me, it’s not about worrying about that thin line [between speaking truth and uniting people], it’s about doing what’s right.”

Hollandsworth, when asked roughly the same question during our interview, agreed: “Whatever you create, you’re gonna be critiqued on. And there’s somebody somewhere that’s gonna hate all over your stuff. And that’s just the name of the game. But if you can be confident, and you have a voice, and you feel you have a voice, and you have the bravado and the courage to express that voice in whatever style that you have—I think it’s imperative that you do it.”

* * *

When it was all said and done, nobody really knew what would happen to the murals painted on temporary plywood. None of the artists, at least. Davies, the organizer, said that he’s retrieving the artworks when stores throw open the shutters and the boards are taken down. He’s clear coating them and putting them in the backyard of Deep Ellum Art Co., a local art space and concert venue. Davies told me the artworks will be exhibited in downtown Dallas in the fall. Perhaps some pieces will be auctioned off; the proceeds would go to organizations doing good work.

The whole creating without knowing where it will go is just fine with the artists. Martinez explained to me that, in the street-art world, compositions are often plagiarized, or buffed out, or painted over. And Martinez wasn’t looking for publicity anyway. Same goes for the other artists. They wanted to beautify their city, spread hope, create unity, and speak truth to power. And if not now, when?

“For artists whose focus has been on social aspect of injustice, and just basically the state of the world, the evils of man, as you would say—it’s our job to do it,” Davies told me. “So this is when we are actually at our best. This is when we should be utilizing all of our tools.”

 

Photo by Miles Hearne / BLMARTWORK

And this is when we must part, after noting some fortuitous symbolism:

Stores boarded-up their windows after demonstrators smashed some in and stole shoes that last weekend of May. A weekend that was at least partly defined, in Dallas, by rioting. A weekend defined by a rebellion dominated by lust. There haven’t been any incidents of rioting or looting since then, however, despite the fact that groups of protestors have marched through retail stores and restaurants time and again. The rebellion, these days, is a little of lust but lots of love.

The rebellion, these days, is a little of lust but lots of love.

Property owners have now begun to throw the shutters open and remove the murals. It’s temporary art taken to the extreme. And that’s just fine with the artists. Because, as artist after artist put it, no matter what happens to their art, there’s always the someone who saw the mural and was moved by it. That someone will go forward into the world with a newfound drive to change the world for the better. When there are enough of those people, they can organize. When there’s enough of those people, they can sublimate their lust into love. Because—to paraphrase Freire—if one does not love the world—if one does not love life—if one does not love people—one cannot enter into dialogue. If one cannot enter into dialogue, one cannot revolt against oppressive systems. If one cannot enter into dialogue, one cannot join the revolution. The lightning has struck. I suppose I could say something about harnessing the electricity and turning it into energy, but that would be shockingly cheesy. Anyway, the street paintings may not kill you. They might not make you feel more powerful than pills do. But they do something better. 


Trace Miller is a freelance journalist and essayist born, raised, and based in Dallas, Texas. He’s a Southern writer who will write about anything under the sun, as long as it’s interesting. Trace likes modern and postmodern American literature, Venezuelan food, art history, Zoomer comedy, volunteering at nonprofits, muckraking police reporting, and Existential nihilism (along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche and early Jean-Paul Sartre). He believes TikTok should be esteemed as the newest form of high art. His work has appeared in D MagazineCentral Track, the Dallas Morning News, the Bangalore Review, anEntropy. He’s going to study comparative literature and economics at New York University.