Pittsburgh’s newest mural is the words “Black Lives Matter,” painted in white letters 12 feet tall in one of Downtown’s most prominent spots: on the wall of the Allegheny River wharf, right across from PNC Park, along a busy riverfront trail.
The mural was painted by guerrilla artists this past Saturday. But it proved both surprisingly uncontroversial in some ways, and controversial in ways that ultimately rendered it a work in progress.
Saturday, in the midst of ongoing local and national protests decrying police brutality against African Americans, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, a group of local street artists gathered on the wharf, said Joshua Krajnak, one of the six artists. In support of the protests, they began painting their BLM message over top of “Adjutant,” a 900-foot-long 2015 mural depicting silhouettes of plant life in black, white and gray, designed by local artist Kim Beck. The block letters were outlined in red.
Krajnak said about two hours into the daylight project, after the letters were outlined, the group was approached by police who had received a call about the project, but did not ask them to stop. Photos of the mural – visible in its entire 400-yard length only from the north bank of the Allegheny or from the river itself – began to circulate on social media, often to approval. The project also included, on concrete columns alongside the wall, large portraits of black people killed by police, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and East Pittsburgh teenager Antwon Rose II.
However, controversy erupted online when it was learned that no African Americans had been involved in the project, either as planners or artists.
One leading critic was Camerin “Camo” Nesbit, a Pittsburgh-based muralist. He appreciated the mural’s message, but not the fact that black artists had been left out of the process, he said. His response was to recruit fellow black artists to make the mural their own in an all-day painting session Wednesday.
“It was just trying to make the project intentional by putting black artists on it, and just making it a bigger thing, bigger than graffiti, bigger than public art, the actual stance for equality among black individuals, and the step toward solidarity that we all want,” he said.
Nesbit spoke Wednesday on the riverfront trail, where several artists were adding to the mural as joggers and bicyclists passed by.
One of the artists was Destenee Guy, 27, of Hazelwood, who was painting with a brush.
“My contribution is going to be budding flowers into the word ‘Lives,’ the middle of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ just to show that we’re still blooming, we’re still growing, we’re still in the midst of it all, coming together and blooming as a family,” she said.
Fifty yards downriver, Juliandra Jones was using black spray-paint to add plants and “a friendly snake wrapping around the ‘M’ here, just something vibrant and cool-looking.”
She had gotten involved because of “just the message, and just the fact that we are all out here able to put our own mark on this and make it even more beautiful than it was,” she said.
Other additions to the “BLM” mural included black-power fists.
Visitors to the site earlier in the day had included Kim Beck, whose original mural was largely painted over and who has said she approved of the project.
Around noon, other visitors included Krajnak and Conor Clarke, two of the artists who had painted the new mural.
Asked how he felt about criticisms of the project, Krajnak said, “I could understand people’s perspective on that, for sure, but at the same time we worked with the resources that we did have and just moved forward with people that we knew and trusted and were comfortable working with. We didn’t want to involve anyone that would be vulnerable to potential arrest or put anyone else in jeopardy.”
Nesbit said that part of the frustration with the project within the African American art community is that white artists seem to get more opportunities – for sanctioned as well as unsanctioned projects. For black artists, “it’s very difficult to get public-art opportunities or to get sanctioned and stuff like that, and like there’s … sometimes a biased way it goes,” he said. “So we’re just trying to break that amongst everyone.”
Of Krajnak, Clarke and their colleagues, Nesbit said, “I really commend these guys for kicking in the door of unsanctioned work, and just making [this project] like a sanctioned thing, that’s a very powerful thing.”
Krajnak said he was pleased the way the mural has developed: “It was created as a positive message in support, and the fact that people are being supportive … it’s great.”
Krajnak said the City of Pittsburgh's cooperation extended to facilitating the transportation of construction-scale work lights to the site to permit painting after dark.
Mayoral spokesperson Timothy McNulty said Wednesday that Mayor Bill Peduto had instructed the city’s Department of Public Works not to remove the mural.
Sitting in a circle by the mural, Nesbit, Krajnak, and Clarke said they hope the mural sparks more Black Live Matter-themed public art in Pittsburgh.
“We will continue to push this message and do what it take to move forward to equalize black lives and get opportunity for artists,” said Nesbit, whose own work has included a big sports mural (now removed) on the old Kaufmann’s building, Downtown. “I think this is a small picture [of] something extremely bigger. I think it’s gonna be an interesting and fun summer.”