A potent mixture of raw emotions, empowering vision, and colorful paint has resulted in some powerful protest art along Madison’s iconic State Street, lifting a number of African American artists out of cultural isolation in the process.

Artists with social platforms have an attentive audience and an influential role to play in parallel to the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation and beyond. At its core, street art has historically served as a means of protest. It provides a public platform to those who have long been oppressed, silenced, and altogether excluded from the larger conversation. 

The recorded killing of Floyd, while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, struck a nerve. It ignited marches, demands for justice and cries for immediate police reform. Some businesses in Madison were damaged, some were looted, and some store owners took preemptive safeguards to protect their property by boarding them up amid the civil unrest. 

Creative artists Cassandra Marzette (sun glasses) and Lilada Gee create beautiful Black girl art on boarded up Goodman’s Jewelers.

The blank plywood covering their windows became canvases. Creatives and artists, armed with brushes, sketches and paint, took to the streets to help build narratives of empathy and focus action on what matters.   

Then, at the suggestion of Madison City Council President Sheri Carter, the city commissioned artists to create unique artistic responses to the historic moments and movements within the community. City Arts Administrator Karin Wolf got to work. With the cooperation of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, who recruited more than 60 businesses to participate in the program, along with the Overture Center for the Arts and the UW Bookstore, some 100 graffiti artists and muralists, turned drab plywood façades into colorful reminders of what is being fought for in the streets.  

 Messages like “Say His Name,” “Rise Up,” and “Our Existence is Resistance” serve as uncomfortable reminders of the police brutality and systemic racial injustices that have become altogether impossible to continue to ignore. 

“Art is another way of expression,” said Alana Caire, one of the artists who painted a tribute to Tony Terrell Robinson who was shot dead by Madison police in 2015.  “A story can go a long way in explaining what happened, but visual representations can not only explain a story in a few strokes, but tell the whole story without uttering a word.  

“People get to define what art means for themselves, instead of being told. And if their version is all the more gripping, then perhaps they’ll understand better the situation at hand. In terms of the movement and more explicit pieces, one can either look at a piece as a violent display, or the reality of our people. And that in itself, cannot be policed. If people feel threatened by it, then we know there are those who simply cannot and will not handle change, especially through justified anger,” Caire added. 

In all, 70 commissioned murals conveying powerful messages, inspiring dialogue, and demanding change stretched along State Street for more than a half-a-mile. The conversation-stirring pieces aren’t a peaceful contrast to the unrest in the streets. The work represents a continuation of the protests by other means, with added hope for a better tomorrow. 

“I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the talented artists and came away from that visit inspired to keep working for racial justice in our country. The march to end systemic racism continues, and together, we all must do the hard work to make sure everyone can live the American value of liberty and justice for all,” said U. S. Senator Tammy Baldwin following a tour on State Street. 

The artists were paid modest stipends through the Madison Arts Commission’s Art in Public Places Program. That funding was specifically allocated to be directed to artists who had lost income due to COVID-19, according to Wolf, who organized the effort from June 2 to June 14. ​ 

“When the project began, I was particularly looking for artists who were strong enough in character to carry the burden of working on State Street where the tension was unbelievable,” Wolf said. “We tried to respect all of the emotions and feelings …my mantra was that I’d rather see spilled paint in the streets than blood in the streets.”  

With an overwhelming focus on racial pride and self-determination, many of the street artists said it took the death of another unarmed Black man to have their likenesses on full display in the shadow of the state Capitol, where many have traditionally felt unwelcomed. 

“This is art activism,” said Lilada Gee, artist and founder of Defending Black Girlhood. “For someone who grew up here in Madison, this is the blackest I’ve ever seen State Street. To be able to create these images is everything. You can’t miss the message. 

“Some people won’t stop to hear what others have to say or watch what they are doing. But, they are flocking here to see this. At some point, we’re hoping the message will sink into their spirit,” added Gee, who helped create several colorful murals of Black women and girls of multiple hues.  

Madison’s protest art was shared across social media platforms, even capturing the attention of photojournalist Peter Joseph Souza, the former chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama. Souza received over 84,000 likes when he shared the mural of his former boss and first lady Michelle Obama that was painted by Dane Arts Mural Arts at 411 State St. 

For historical preservation, Madison photographer Hedi Rudd was also commissioned by the city to take snapshots and catalogue each art piece. Rudd, who is the 2019 recipient of the annual Nan Cheney March for Justice award, said she understands the significance of the bold Black Lives Matter murals. 

“There is so much power in the words and images,” Rudd said. “It was such a great learning experience. I really wish, however, that there will be more opportunities like this, but not in response to what actually happened. It shouldn’t take busted windows for Black art to be visible and available.” 

From left to right: Michael Ford, the Hip Hop Architect is with Noah Anderson and Rafeeq Asad. Ford and Asad painted 526 Missed Opportunities shown behind them.

As businesses begin reopening and broken windows are being replaced, the boards bearing the beautiful murals will be removed slowly over many weeks. The project was always intended to be ephemeral, city organizers said.  

The city is seeking public input on how best to preserve the art. Madison’s central Business Improvement District is also working with partners to remove and store many of the pieces in hopes that there will be an additional public viewing of the murals. 

The city is seeking public input on how best to preserve the art email madisonarts@cityofmadison.com to find a link to the survey. Madison’s central Business Improvement District is also working with partners to remove and store many of the pieces in hopes that there will be an additional public viewing of the murals.  

Contributions to keep the art movement moving forward can be made to the Racial Equity Social Justice Art by visiting this link http://www.friendsofmadisonarts.org.