Creative 'fuel' meant to help quell violence
Downtown Portland's Pioneer District was quiet and eerily vacant on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, surrounded on all sides by boarded-up shop windows. Many sported haphazard graffiti tags left during the first nights of protests against the May 25 murder of George Floyd and police brutality.
A bright spot amid downtown's transformation, however, was the front side of the Apple store, as well as the perimeter of Pioneer Place across the street. The store's boarded windows were painted over with black, a prime canvas for a sea of Black Lives Matter murals and memorials by a range of street artists who covered nearly every inch of the space.
Two of the larger murals — one of George Floyd, created on June 4, and another painted June 15 depicting Rayshard Brooks, the Atlanta man killed after being confronted by law enforcement for sleeping in his car — were drawn in a collaboration by street artists David Flores and Steven Brandt, otherwise known as Atlioux Tchen.
Flores, who is Mexican, and Brandt, who is Haitian-American, painted their first mural after talking with fellow street artist Emma Berger, owner of Flat Rabbit Studio. Berger was one of the first to paint on the Apple store and recruited dozens of other street artists to cover the black-washed plywood in murals, an effort to support Black Lives Matter and memorialize Black victims of police brutality with street art.
Flores and Brandt were walking by Berger and a gathering of street artists outside the store on June 4 when they asked if they could paint on the wall.
"I was like, 'it's not my wall, you can do whatever you want,'" Berger said. "Nobody paints in broad daylight because normally it's not allowed. I think because we were there in broad daylight they felt like they could be there, too."
The painting process for the George Floyd mural took only 12 to 15 minutes, Brandt said, due to the fact that the duo only used white paint, which Brandt touted as a cost-savings measure. The mural depicts Floyd's face in realistic detail and is surrounded by a white glow, with sparkling stars adorning the periphery.
"The process was trying to find a picture of him that fits close to how I would see him in the real world," Flores said. "That was my representation of him … as a person of color who said, 'Mama I can't breathe,' [Floyd's death] was really triggering."
In central downtown, the mural's location is an abrupt shift from where Flores and Brandt typically produce street art. Brandt admits he felt nervous at the prospect of creating art in such public circumstances because for street artists, too much exposure and name recognition can lead to unwanted attention from law enforcement.
But legal pushback — and public pushback, Berger said — has largely receded for BLM-dedicated street art.
The explosion of work accompanying Portland's reckoning with police brutality has made street art's egalitarian nature and unique accessibility particularly apparent. Dozens of artists, many of them from marginalized communities that are sometimes adversely affected by police presence, have put their talents to work as a personal contribution to the movement, Brandt and Flores included.
Two weeks after the completion of their George Floyd mural, Brandt and Flores decided to do another collaboration for a Black Lives Matter memorial, this time in honor of Rayshard Brooks. The second mural is directly across the street from the Apple store on a large stretch of plywood covering Pioneer Place. It depicts Brooks' face and frames him with a faint black glow, surrounded by black and white stars and red and yellow accents.
Flores and Brandt have collaborated on several pieces together as a mentor/mentee duo, including the Pegasus Project on Northeast 76th Avenue in Montavilla. They also create solo art at least a few times per week. Both share their art on their respective social media channels. Brandt, whose Haitian name is Atlioux (pronounced "atlas") Tchen, can be found at @atliouxart on Instagram, and Flores, who also goes by "Skeez," can be found at @skeez181.
Both Brandt and Flores — born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Houston, Texas, respectively — attest to personal negative experiences with police in their communities, interactions that influenced both their decision to paint the George Floyd mural and how they approach street art in general.
Brandt says he has been confronted by law enforcement over the art he makes in back alleys and tunnels, which he argues is unfair and unnecessary criminalization.
"I'm considered a criminal for making art," Brandt said. "Just because I use a can doesn't mean I'm doing nefarious things. Kinda wish paint brushes were illegal — then we'd see those guys getting in trouble."
Art vs. graffiti
Brandt and Flores met by chance two years ago. Brandt was with a group of fellow street artists when Flores mingled with Brandt's group and took an interest in Brandt's art.
"We talked, he saw my art," Brandt said. "He asked if anyone was showing me anything and was just like, 'Hey, if you want, I'll invest in you,' and I was like 'really?' and he was like, 'yeah. But you need to show me you have potential,' and I'm like, 'yeah, I've got that."
Flores, who is 45, started his career in street art more than 30 years ago at age 12. He started mentoring students in 2004 through the Children's Prison Art Project in Houston, a nonprofit organization that matches incarcerated youth with mentors. Since he moved to Portland three years ago, Flores has continued teaching, now running a class to help budding street artists learn how to control their cans of spray paint.
Though Flores works a regular job in addition to creating street art, he says that in an ideal world, one without bills to pay and perhaps with a society less prone to conflating street art with vandalism, he would like to open a school dedicated to street art.
"A school of artists, kind of like the X-Men, but instead of them, it's artists," Flores said.
Brandt is also quick to make a distinction between art and more destructive forms of graffiti.
"If someone's doing it on a church, you're doing it on a preschool, on a house fence, on a store's glass window — that's not acceptable, in my opinion," Brandt said. "But if it's a dark alley and no one's going near it, then brighten that stuff up, because most people are scared of dark alleys. But if you brighten it up, do a dope-ass mural, then … more people are going to go to that place. It actually makes it safer, in my opinion."
Flores also says that for many street artists, the opportunity to create public art organically and without fees or other socioeconomic barriers is a means of amplifying the voices of the unheard.
But when it comes to the murals dedicated to George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, Brandt and Flores said that unlike other pieces, the focus should absolutely not lie on them.
"Never mind about me, just George Floyd," Flores said. "It's becoming a revolution, and this is my gift to the cause as an artist. Ultimately, it's about Floyd and the message, 'stop police brutality.'"
Brandt prefaces his hopes for the murals' impact with a dismissal of the highly visual, sometimes-graphic culture currently propelling outrage on behalf of Black lives.
"We shouldn't need to paint their faces," he said. "Me painting their faces ain't gonna stop what's been happening to everybody, but I do believe it will be part of the fuel to stop it."
This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports two summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at oregonmetro.gov/news.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.