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The Storefront Alchemists

Organized by a Pilsen gallerist in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the Mural Movement connected boarded-up businesses to artists.

The boards seemed to appear overnight. As civilians across the nation mobilized against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, some blocks transformed into nondescript processions of plywood, propped against storefronts by business owners to deter possible looters.

Delilah Martinez, the owner of Vault Gallerie in Pilsen, understood their concern. But she wondered if there could be a better way for Chicago’s streets to show solidarity with the organizers marching through them.

That’s where The Mural Movement comes in. Since June 2, Martinez has connected 58 businesses on all sides of the city to artists who have volunteered to create murals in solidarity with racial justice demonstrations. Through her connections as a gallery owner, Martinez raised funds to help artists cover materials and transportation costs. The Mural Movement has also partnered with youth leaders at the fitness studio Healthy Hood to cut grass, trim weeds, and collect trash in the neighborhoods where business owners requested murals.

“I do the behind-the-scenes work to make it comfortable for artists to show up, do their work, and create a mural that supports Black Lives Matter and Black and brown unity,” Martinez says.

Here, three participating artists discuss their work in their own words.

Pillars at 2006 East 87th Street. Acrylic.   Photo: Asteroid Lloyd

Asteroid Lloyd, 31

Born and raised on the Southeast Side

Delilah got me in contact with Pillars, a Black-owned clothing store in Avalon Park. When I was out there painting, there was a protest headed west on 87th Street. A lot of people came by to say encouraging things. The business owner loves the mural and the people around the community were really happy.

The character on the left is a lotus flower called Atum. In a lot of African cultures, the lotus flower represents consciousness. The little girl that you see on the opposing side is Ta-seti. She’s a kid from the South Side of Chicago, and she represents justice. I put “Buy Black” there because Pillars is a Black-owned store, and I picked Atum to say this because we’re talking about things forming through chaos. Ta-seti isn’t scared to say “Reparations Now!!!”, and I’m trying to speak power to that truth.

I want the community that sees this mural daily to feel a sense of priority: Reparations first, and keep your mind on that. Support each other and keep the money that you do have flowing in the neighborhood. It’s going to take some extra support, because a lot of times Black people live in food deserts. We don’t always have the stores that you can go to right in the neighborhood — you have to go outside the neighborhood.

My characters help me push that message. Ta-seti is really vibrant and determined; she’s smart, and she’s an alchemist. I feel like African Americans are alchemists because we make something out of nothing.

Exclusive773 at 857 West 87th Street. Spray paint.   Photo: Langston Allston

Langston Allston, 28

Visiting artist from New Orleans

I come to Chicago all the time; it’s like a second home. I was supposed to do a show at Vault Gallerie this summer, which was the original impetus for me coming up here from New Orleans. But there was a lot of uncertainty because there’s a global pandemic going on.

Delilah pointed me to a mural for Two Fish Crab Shack in Bronzeville, then she hit me up again and said that Exclusive773 wanted a mural. Exclusive is a cool apparel and electronics business, and I know they mean a lot to the community in Auburn Gresham.

It looks apocalyptic to see businesses boarded up everywhere around the city. It would be nice if people felt secure enough in their own communities to be able to take them down. I understand the boards are up for a reason, and I understand that people are scared. There’s a lot of rational thinking in that, but it’s just sad to see.

In this mural for Exclusive, the five characters I painted aren’t anyone specific. I’ve been at a lot of protests over the last couple weeks, and I’ve been inspired by the relationships between people there. I’ve been painting those relationships rather than specific portraits. Also, the turnover is really quick. A business might hit me up a day before I do the mural, so I’m figuring out a way to freestyle it.

The community response to this mural was really cool. People came up, talked to me, gave me free food. And it brought a little bit of joy to the owner of the businesses. Normally, when I’m doing a piece that’s public art, I do a lot more research in advance and try to build real relationships. Being able to freestyle and still get to show love is cool.

Reynolds next to his work at the T-Mobile on 752 East 79th Street. Spray paint.    Photo: Trey Holloway Photography

Everett Reynolds, 25

From Carmelita, Belize; currently living in Avondale

This was my first time using spray paint for a mural. Typically, I use brushes with exterior and enamel paints. I felt I needed to challenge myself while doing a piece that challenges people’s views.

I’ve had some of my art in Vault Gallerie before. The night Delilah asked me to be part of The Mural Movement, I was scrolling through Snapchat and my friend posted this picture of their son, Troy, eating watermelon. He looked so happy. The caption on their photo was, “It’s crazy to think that this little boy is going to have to grow up and one day possibly be a target.” That was super deep, so I reached out to my friend and asked if I could paint Troy.

A lot of people don’t know about the history of the watermelon; they just know about the stereotype that Black people eat it. But watermelon was actually an important symbol of freedom for Black people. When they were freed, they started planting, eating, and selling watermelon. They had their own land and were able to make money. The southern whites didn’t like that because it started disrupting the racial order. So, they began making fun of Black people for it.

Troy’s not aware of anything that’s going on in the world right now. He’s not aware of the fact that he’s gonna have to grow up and deal with racism. It’s a symbol that says we have to change everything before he grows up. Painting Troy with the watermelon was taking that powerful symbol back. It’s unapologetic: I’m eating watermelon. I’m a little Black boy. And one day I’m going to grow up and I’m going to be something.

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