The scramble to save Black Lives Matter art

Amir Diop opened up Instagram on the morning of July 22nd to find photos of his shredded mural. A few days earlier, he and artist Eddison Romeo had spent 16 hours painting the wooden boards that covered up the windows of the Museum of Modern Art’s design store in SoHo, Manhattan.

They painted as protests against police brutality and racism rocked the nation. In the mural, which spanned four nearly floor-to-ceiling boards, smiling Black and brown figures surround a swirling black hole. Written across the top were the words “Take me to a place where” — the T-shirt of a person with a raised fist completed the sentence: where “Black Lives Matter.”

“They said that place doesn’t exist and they just threw it in the garbage,” Diop says. He was upset that he wasn’t contacted before the boards came down. By the time Diop saw the photos on Instagram, some of the boards had already been reduced to a pile of long wooden strips. Next to the pile in the photo, a couple of workers were sawing through more boards. He had added another note on the mural next to his Instagram handle that read: “If MoMa cares about art, they’ll save this.” That was gone, too.

Amir Diop poses for a portrait in the studio space that became a home base for the newly created Soho Renaissance Factory collective.

Diop didn’t have permission to paint on those boards or on dozens of other boards he turned into works of art across SoHo. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, artists transformed the neighborhood of SoHo from an industrial area into the center of fashion and design it is today. When the pandemic shuttered businesses, the neighborhood more closely resembled its old, emptier self — block after block devoid of anything but boarded-up buildings. When the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked massive protests, demonstrators and artists brought life to the neighborhood again. The streets became an outdoor gallery for protest art.

Diop and a group of other artists banded together to save their art as businesses and museums open back up. A patchwork of friends, social media followers, and security guards in the neighborhood kept a watchful eye on the pieces and tipped the artists off when any boards started to come down. At a moment’s notice, they rushed to the scene where they sometimes successfully convinced storeowners to let them take back their work. They’ve scared off random people looking to take the art for themselves. Sometimes they were too late.

They don’t technically own the boards that became their canvases. But each layer of paint is evidence of hours of labor they invested in their causes. The resulting works of art are invaluable as symbols of the ideals that have propelled one of the most pivotal civil rights movements in the nation’s history.

Amir Diop poses for a portrait in a Soho studio space that the collective, Soho Renaissance Factory, used as a meeting place. July 27th, 2020

“It just seems as though MoMa determined what’s art, and what’s not art … If I’m not a dead Black artist, they don’t want to hear from me,” Diop tells The Verge. “They destroyed a piece from this movement. When I am dead, they’ll be looking for the works that I’ve made.”

After Diop’s art was taken down from the MoMA Design Store, he and his friends took to Instagram. Konstance Patton, another artist, posted a video of Diop. “Tell me why you mad, son?” Patton asks Diop in the video.

“MoMa just chopped up my art,” Diop answers.

“Does MoMa care about Black artists?” Patton says.

“Apparently not,” replies Diop. The MoMa Design Store did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Even if the artists don’t own the boards they painted on, shopkeepers don’t necessarily have the right to chop up the murals. The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) that was passed in 1990 gives artists rights to protect their work. It is intended to prevent the intentional destruction, distortion, or mutilation of works of art. Under the law, artists have the right to claim their work and must be given 90 days’ notice to take it down before it can be destroyed.

One of the highest-profile cases that invoked rights under VARA was the stunning legal victory of 21 graffiti artists against a real estate developer in New York City. The artists had transformed an old factory building in Queens into 5Pointz, a graffiti art mecca. Some of the artists rented studio space in the building, and with their landlord’s permission, began painting the walls in the 1990s. By 2013, some 1,500 artists had left their mark and tourists were trekking to the landmark in droves.

That year, after the owner of the building decided he’d rather tear it down to build new apartments, he unexpectedly painted the colorful walls white overnight. The structure was demolished in 2014. “This is the biggest rag and disrespect in the history of graffiti,” Marie Cecile Flageul, a spokeswoman for the 5Pointz artists told The New York Times after the whitewashing. The artists successfully sued the real estate developer for violating VARA and won $6.75 million in damages. The Supreme Court this month declined to hear an appeal, leaving the decision in place and likely making it easier for other street artists to use VARA to protect their work.

“5Pointz” was an outdoor art exhibit space for graffiti artists.
Photo by Hohlfeld / ullstein bild via Getty Images

New York’s graffiti iconic spot “5Pointz” stands defaced with white paint covering most of the artwork, after the building was painted white in New York, November 19th, 2013.
Photo by Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images

VARA is one of the strongest laws protecting artists’ work in the world, according to Enrico Bonadio, who teaches intellectual property law at the City, University of London. But for an artist to successfully invoke it, they need to prove that the work of art reaches “recognized stature” — a gray area that largely depends on what art is deemed important enough to be saved. The 5Pointz case paved the way for graffiti and street art to be recognized as such, and social media has opened the door for more art to become influential outside the walls of galleries.

“Internet recognition could be enough,” Bonadio says. “Graffiti and street art live on the internet. They thrive on the internet more than fine art.”

The context in which the art was created gives it gravity, too. Similar to the way graffiti is an integral pillar of hip-hop culture, the street art that’s accompanied worldwide protests this year has become an iconic piece of the movement to end police brutality and institutional racism. “These pieces are the visual art expression of the political, sociological, and cultural movement that is raging,” says Brooke Oliver, an attorney who specializes in art law in the US.

“I want to make something beautiful that is going to energize the movement,” Patton says of her art. She paints “goddesses,” Black and Indigenous women in vibrant hues, sometimes adorned with gold earrings and pipes. “Showing these Black women that are just strong and graceful and beautiful and obviously goddesses, for me that’s a really strong protest,” she says.

Konstance Patton stands in front of two of her goddess paintings.

Before the recent protests, Patton painted her street art by cover of night, sometimes leaving behind “messy” murals that she rushed to complete before anyone could stop her. “Now it’s like I’ve been allowed by the streets to take my time,” she says. She was able to paint blank boards across SoHo undisturbed. “It’s for me, a powerful statement. I’m a Black Native American woman and I can go outside and paint — I’m not bothered by the cops, which is really crazy.”

Patton struck up relationships with security guards stationed outside shuttered businesses on the streets where she painted. When one business where she had painted a board opened back up, she got a message from one of the security guards to let her know that her work was in danger of being tossed out. Patton was able to get in touch with a group of artists that had banded together to collect boards from reopening businesses, and they picked it up from the security guard’s station.

Since she started painting, some of her goddesses have vanished, including one she named after her newborn niece, Kaya. Patton and Diop think some people stole their art — taking pieces down to keep in their own homes or potentially sell or display elsewhere. Diop even saved one of his murals from a man he caught red-handed taking boards off storefronts and loading them into a moving van. Diop says the man claimed to be hired by renowned art fair Art Basel, but Art Basel denied collecting any murals in New York City in an email to The Verge.

“There’s definitely like this predatory situation happening,” Patton says.

Artist Konstance Patton walks down the street in SoHo in lower Manhattan.

Patton and Diop, who met while painting in SoHo, have banded together with a few other artists, Trevor Croop, Brendan McNally, and Esteban Sulé Marquez-Monsanto, to preserve and promote their art. They all stumbled across each other in the art scene that sprung up during protests and the pandemic. Now, they call their collective the Soho Renaissance Factory.

Croop, who was previously a Facebook artist in residence, rented a studio space in SoHo that became a home base for the new collective over the summer. Croop stored more than 80 boards in his space, 10 of which have been returned to artists, with some even lining the staircase on the three flights up to his studio. He’s also worked with other groups, including the local nonprofit SoHo Broadway Initiative, to reunite other artists with their work.

SoHo Broadway reached out to businesses before they opened back up and asked them to be in touch so they could collect the art. Now the SoHo Broadway and the Renaissance Factory each have databases of dozens of boards they’ve collected. They reached out to artists who left social media handles or other identifying information on the murals. SoHo Broadway has returned or made arrangements to return boards to nearly 30 artists.

Trevor Croop’s studio loft space in SoHo stored dozens of pieces of artwork that he and other artists saved as businesses opened back up and took down painted boards.

Trevor Croop in the staircase of his former studio space shows the many boards with work by various artists being stored there.

Amir Diop’s work that once boarded up the side of a business was hung inside the loft space.

Everything happened on the fly and neither group was sure how long they’d have to keep storing the pieces, but they didn’t want to keep the art to themselves. Many of the artists the Soho Renaissance Factory reached out to didn’t have a place to store the boards they painted on or were unable to pick them up.

Since Diop started saving boards from being destroyed, he hoped they would eventually wind up in a museum or gallery. Now, the plans are in place for that to become a reality. Last week, the Soho Renaissance Factory struck a deal with Mana Contemporary, an arts center in Jersey City. With artists’ consent, Mana plans to hold all the boards that the group saved through the end of next year, with the hope of putting together a show once COVID-19 related restrictions lighten up. Artists can take their art back if they want to keep it, but they will also have the opportunity to sell their work when it’s exhibited. If they choose to sell, they can either keep all the proceeds or donate some to a charity of their choice. Mana Contemporary is also developing an interactive map of street art made alongside racial justice protests in the US this year.

In the meantime, the Soho Renaissance Factory has already landed a residency at the NoMo SoHo hotel in Manhattan, where some of their boards are on display. They’re living and working there, too, making new works inside a new studio space at the hotel.

“My hope is that [my art] is a part of history,” Diop says. “We can teach kids in the future that this is what happened in 2020, and there are different artists that were coming out and putting beautiful stuff up that can impact the future.”

Brendan McNally, Trevor Croop, Konstance Patton, Esteban Sulé Marquez-Monsanto, and Amir Diop came together to form the Soho Renaissance Factory

Brendan McNally, Trevor Croop, Konstance Patton, Esteban Sulé Marquez-Monsanto, and Amir Diop came together to form the Soho Renaissance Factory.

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