Right now, the public can visit Hamilton Avenue in front of Palo Alto City Hall to see a nearly 245-foot-long and 17-foot-tall vibrant street mural reflecting the global Black Lives Matter movement as seen through the eyes of 16 artists who contributed to the project on Tuesday.
"I'm just trying to display history out here, put it in people's faces and make them aware," said Demetris Washington, 29, a Sacramento-based muralist. Washington, who was recently highlighted in the media for leading a similar project in front of the state Capitol, was assigned to paint the letter "B" in the mural, which spells out "Black Lives Matter" in block letters. His letter features the Nile River, Egyptian pyramids and black hieroglyphic symbols of peace and love, among others, against a yellow backdrop that nods to the now iconic mural painted near the White House — the one that sparked the national trend of plastering the rallying phrase in front of government buildings and city halls.
The project, proposed by community members and unanimously supported by the City Council and Public Art Commision, was quickly pieced together by co-leaders Nia Taylor, a member of the commission, and Ally Richter, artist and former city public art commissioner. (Call-for-artists submissions were shared on social media on June 19, with a June 23 deadline, and the winners, each of whom were awarded a $700 stipend to paint one letter of the "Black Lives Matter" street mural, were selected and announced by the co-leaders the next day.)
"This is a step in a good direction," said Taylor, who is currently the sole Black commissioner on the art commission. "I think there's been a lot of African Americans in this community who have often felt underrepresented."
Out of the 89 applicants, 16 budding and seasoned Bay Area-based artists, including solo artists, two duo collaborations and an art club from San Jose's The Harker School, each filled in a letter on June 30 with their own interpretations of the Black Lives Matter movement that gained traction in Palo Alto after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Each letter evokes a timely reminder of Black life and, more solemnly, death. The letter "M" includes a golden portrait of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black medical worker who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers in her apartment, painted by muralist Nico Berry and his daughter Simone. In one "T" of "Matters," Briena Brown, 20, a San Jose State University student, painted Black Greek muses of history, music and love poetry to reflect her own dual heritage and tell viewers that "Black women are the root to everything," she said.
Together, the mural tries to mime the multitudinous effect of the simple, three-worded phrase shouted at protests, worn on T-shirts and shared across social media platforms. All at once, it recalls the injustices Black people have been subjected to, the achievements they have made so far, the demands that still need to be met and that Black lives matter.
But it also brings up the question countless Black community members, including the protesters and speakers of Palo Alto's Juneteenth rally, have anxiously asked: How long will this last?
The city's mural, like many others, is temporary. Depending on weather and traffic conditions, the water-based latex paint used for the mural is expected to last anywhere from one to three years, Public Art Program coordinator Nadya Chuprina said.
A few artists said the public artwork's lifespan can be significantly extended a couple years by applying a layer of protective coating. City Manager Ed Shikada said on Tuesday the city has not yet made any decision to do so and that one of the other issues to consider is how well the paint adheres to the street.
None of the artists carried the illusion that the mural was going to last forever. Stuart Robertson, who added colors of the Pan-African and his home country's flag of Jamaica in the quilt-like patterns of his "R" in "Matters, was clear-minded about the fact that, like all art, the city mural is performative — "a gesture," he said.
"We could do without the mural," said Robertson, 28, a painter who recently earned his masters of fine arts degree from Stanford University. "But it's good that the community is generating awareness. It's a way to make the conversation more visible."
Kenan Moos, the 21-year-old who organized the June 5 protest against police violence in Los Altos and came out Tuesday to film drone footage of the mural's creation, said the project was "a very, very small part of what needs to be done."
"Performative is good and bad," Moos said, echoing Robertson's sentiment. "The bad side of 'performative' is a lot of people feel that it's all that needs to be done. The mural is great in terms of making a statement, but the statement needs to be followed up with the City Council's actions."
Over the past month, city leaders have taken a closer look at the Police Department's policies as local protests, which have drawn thousands of community members, took place against police brutality and systemic racism. The City Council has formed two ad hoc committees to review police policies and make monthly reports to the public.
Other local and national demands that have long been called for before the Floyd protests include increased diversity initiatives, whether that's from classrooms, newsrooms or local governments. Through the Public Art Commission and city program, Taylor hopes that the city can start to highlight more voices and artists of color within the community.
"The art that we have needs to represent the people that we have in our community," Taylor said.
Several artists and viewers that day spoke with Mayor Adrian Fine, who came to observe the painting of the mural, including Robertson, told him that the city's approval of a mural, which one resident noted the letters faced away from City Hall, will not be enough.
"At the end of the day, this mural will wash away, cars are gonna drive over it and it'll eventually disappear," Robertson said. "We hope that the trend or the interest doesn't disappear with it."
Here's a list of other artists who contributed to the mural in alphabetical order:
• Masuma Ahmed of Palo Alto.
• Urna Bajracharya of Mountain View.
• Nico Berry of San Francisco.
• Shiraaz Bhabha of Palo Alto.
• Briena Brown of San Jose.
• Cece Carpio of Oakland.
• Sarah Joy Espinoza-Evans of San Jose.
• Ruth Feseha of San Jose.
• Janet Foster of Menlo Park.
• Elizabeth Daphne Foggie of Oakland.
• Richard Hoffman of San Jose.
• Ann McMillian of Mountain View.
• Sasha and Ben Vu of Oakland.
• Demetris Washington of Sacramento.
• High school students of The Harker School Art Club of San Jose.