Pandemic BLM Politics: Graffiti from New York, Long Beach, and Los Angeles

Photos by Seph Rodney, Mario Ybarra Jr., and Carrie Paterson
Text by Carrie Paterson

It was lucky for me that early in the (first?) summer of the pandemic, I encountered the writings of Slovenian “graffitologist” Mitja Velikonja, just as my home street corner started filling up with warring pandemic wheatpaste posters and stickers. Like many shops and businesses around the country, the tenants decided to board up the windows in a (hyperbolic, on my quiet street) show of fear about property damage that might ensue from the Black Lives Matter protests stemming from the lynching of George Floyd by a uniformed Minneapolis police officer, in plain sight and while being recorded by the phone camera of a traumatized Black witness.

The politics of witnessing is part of this, but not in the overt way that media witness catalyzed political action, or the way social polities are bound together by acts of speech witnessed by members of a democracy. No, in this case, I want to define a witness as an artwork along with its destruction or its preservation, which betrays the politics of the times.

The escalation of the wheatpaste poster war in my neighborhood, June/July 2020. Northeast Los Angeles.

Velikonja’s analysis of graffiti, a non-sanctioned form of free speech, has a central theme: that the images and methods of graffiti both state theses and undo them, operate forward in time and in reverse, and present a complicated politics that aims as much to convince as to undermine; in other words, it’s a dark art that works both in the positive and the negative, the definitive and the speculative, sometimes simultaneously and to contradictory effect. The photographs below capture a bit of this moment in time, from the Southland of California to the streets of New York. Then we will return to the “war” of opinions on my corner, with input about the semiotics of confusion from a Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood Facebook group.

But first, have a look at one stretch of downtown Long Beach, where protests were strong and dedicated, but where destruction followed late at night. The brightly colored BLM-tagged mural Pandemics are real, Racism is real, White Privilege is real, Police Brutality is real combines the issues of our American pandemic era into one statement of purpose, then highlighted by a separate “Peace” board from either the protests or another window. The latter seems to have been aimed not only at the witnesses to the protests but to the authorities, the object of the protests, declaring a desire and stating a mission from within the chaotic landscape of images, like the classic image of a flower inserted into the barrel of a soldier’s gun. The subtext in black lettering on the former — like under-the-breath counter-arguments to an assumed belligerent viewer — complete the sophisticated dialectics.

Long Beach, California. Photos Mario Ybarra, Jr.

The positive, community-minded messaging on these other murals and graffiti show acts of resilience in the face of brutality and hate. Defiance against injustice. Statements that link the past of the civil rights movement to the history of oppression. Yet, are the animations and cartoon characters like Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Sponge Bob strangely out of place? Or is this statement about place itself: the imagination of Southern California, the movie industry, Disneyland, where dreams and then future realities are made? We’ll come back to this, but through the theme of horror films.

Like the No Justice, No Peace mural in Long Beach, Lady Justice is a theme that carries over to Chambers St., near the World Trade Center’s missing towers. Justice is also Black on this rendition of the Tarot’s eleventh Major Arcana, but she is not playing cards. In fact, her eyes are rolled back, pure white, supernatural. This is Octavia Butler’s Justice, one that speculates on the futures of Black Folks from a terrifyingly informed perspective — Afrofuturism-pessimism. At the same time, its beauty is unmistakable, just as with the other contributions to the Chambers St. scene — Marsha P. Johnson, Freedom Fighter and Protect Black Trans Life.

Chambers St., Manhattan. Photos Seph Rodney.

Over in Brooklyn, on Flatbush Avenue at 5th Street, this other remarkable and loud mural screams, Our Lives Matter from a death mask that is at the same time a child. The authorship is not in question. The history, visualized in portraits and comic panels of the civil rights era, is not in question. The impossibility of looking away is not in question. Death is the only question: it does not have to be.

Brooklyn, New York. Photo Seph Rodney.

But what is a mask anyway? On my street corner, the mask is both an imaginary site as well as a political one. As sure as a massacre in a horror movie or as death in class warfare. The strongest don’t need to be protected. It’s the vulnerable who wear masks, right? So a president declares, demonstrates, believes and is proven wrong by the idea that masks make a person weak and invulnerable. In a horror movie, it’s usually the arrogant large male patriarchal figure who goes down first.

So what of a monster mask? What of a terrorist monster psycho-serial killer in a mask? An artist interested in Hollywood representations of fear decided to make this compelling statement combining the horror of the climbing death toll (the United States had recently passed the 100,000 milestone) and infection rate (at over 2 million, we surpassed every country in the world by well over a 2:1 margin) with the rising fear of distorted science. The piece successfully harnessed terror from both sides of the aisle – what is worse, the pandemic or the government?

Photo by Carrie Paterson

Soon the poster was defaced by someone who wanted to clarify and prioritize: “Masks” was crossed out with marker and “Muzzle” scrawled across the mouth of the poster, effectively trying to “silence” the mute Michael-Myers monster with right-wing screed.

About a month later, the same poster artist came back with a Hannibal Lecter retort placed around the corner on the same building: You want a muzzle? Here’s your muzzle, you cannibalistic, suicidal looney. Now, wear your mask or you will go down with your convictions like the kamikaze of Imperial Japan. American monsters will prevail and eat your children.

Photo by Carrie Paterson

The response a few weeks later was first another screaming “Muzzle,” as if the first had not been “heard,” soon followed by violence: ripping and tearing these posters to hanging shreds. The peacemaker-stickers then came with a radically unoriginal and impotent statement: “THINK of something beautiful.” They remain useless stuck around town, even into our next Covid wave and presidential election.

And then, the ultimate poster coup d’etat: The Gadsden Flag of pre-revolutionary America twisted into a comment about the right-wing “revolutionary” take-over of America by racist neo-Nazis. The style suggests this poster was not by the first poster artist, but perhaps even a new actor. A long discussion on our neighborhood Facebook group ensued, starting from its provocative placement, which was again silencing the silent monster. Mind you, there are lots of creatives in the area: well known artists and rockers, producers and screenwriters, everyone bored and with nothing else to do but contribute to a socio-political art crit.

Photo posted by Anonymous on the neighborhood Facebook group

In part, the Facebook group opined:

A. I agree with __, due to its placement, the artist is making an ( ill informed) statement against masks and how the idea of wearing masks is a representation of “freedoms” being tread upon, as well as an overall statement about our current political climate. Personally, the masks posters are far more visually entertaining.

B. – that’s what set me off about that particular “artistic choice”

Someone else posts this image:

C. This is not at all fascist appropriation, I remember when this flag design was being tossed around on r/vexillology. It’s the Gadsden flag being tread on by the police. It is George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all Americans who have been oppressed by our police. If anything, this is re-appropriation because the fash took it from classical liberals.

B. – very interesting analysis, thank you.

C. There was a debate in the flag appreciation community on how to make a new Gadsden flag. early creations showed the snake as representing America being tread on by a black panther, to show that black people had had enough and were now treading. But there was criticism of designs like this, because it portrays BLM as being anti- American, which I believe is rather far from the truth and would also make it hard for many to defend. Another flag showed a snake and a panther saying “Don’t tread on us.” This one people liked more because it showed the American people, represented by the snake, stood with black Americans. But there was an issue: it still made them an other. So flags like the boot on snake were made. It does seem a little All Lives Matter on the surface, but I think it more tries to avoid hyphen Americans. In the nineteenth century, there was xenophobia against any American who was a Chinese-American, Italian- American, any -American. Having the panther and snake as separate entities I feel plays into this notion, instead of presenting a united front of American. Additionally, Boot on Snake sends the message that all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or creed are or will be victims of oppression without serious police reform.

D. Those could be white laces too, which if you believe laces codes are still relevant would symbolize white supremacy.

B. – see the combat boot/lace thing – that’s what set me off at first! It’s such a strong symbol, that it can go a few ways. One of them is a symbol of hatred. Although, here I do agree with others that it may simply be “oppression” – but come on artist, why the white laces.

E. Why would a white supremacist fight for freedom of all Americans to breathe/speak? Americans are all colors, etc. I didn’t know neo-nazis worked for everyone’s benefit against fascism.

B. Right? Why exactly – that’s why I feel this piece is a somewhat confused statement.

E. An interpretation: it’s referencing corrupt politicians and boot-licking citizens who fascistically mandate masks + eliminating our civil rights due to an unscientifically backed, politically backed lock-down. The politicization of medicine is the end of the scientific method and therefore civilization. This and any reference to a crushing of our inalienable rights should be lauded.

F. most of the rest of the planet managed to get rates down and resume relatively ordinary business. But we are stuck with too many fools…

* * *

IF ANYTHING, this logbook from summer 2020 shows how the pandemic has exposed a rupture in the social fabric requiring a critical urgency to confront, name, and openly discuss polarizing trends in our new civil rights era, all the while foregrounding the creativity that’s needed to persist “telling our stories” (Arundhati Roy) in a compelling and coherent way, and the pivots we need to make as a society to create constructive dialog and avoid falling into fascism.

Photos from Soho by Seph Rodney.

Carrie Paterson is publisher and editor in chief of DoppelHouse Press, a writer and an artist. She solicited the participation for this essay from two of her art school classmates: art and cultural critic, Dr. Seph Rodney, opinion editor for Hyperallergic and editor of its Sunday edition as well as contributor to the New York Times and other publications; and Mario Ybarra Jr., artist, teacher, and co-founder with his wife, Karla Diaz, of Slanguage, an exhibition space and artist collective in Willmington, California dedicated to providing “brave spaces” for cross-platform experimentation and dialog outside the conservative mainstream of museums and galleries.