The first word, Black, was designed by Tijay Mohammed, a Ghanaian-born artist, and used vibrant Kente fabric design and Adinkra symbols, which represent concepts like royalty, unity and legacy.
Sophia Dawson, a Brooklyn-based visual artist, took the second word, lives. The “L” contains the faces of the mothers who have lost their children to police killings. The “I” uses imagery inspired by Emory Douglas, an artist for the Black Panther Party; the “V” highlights the culture of the African diaspora; the “E” contains faces of Black Panther Party members who are currently in prison; and the “S” carries a passage from the Bible.
The mural at Foley Square resembles many that have been done around the country in its word choice and placement, but part of what has been lost in the national debate over the murals and the political statements they make is the logistical care, intentional placement and artistry that went into the creation of many of them.
While some murals like those at Trump Tower and near the White House are primarily stencil work in the blazing yellow paint typically used for road markings, and are known largely for their challenging placement, other murals have been fully realized works of art that went through rigorous processes of design and planning.
This month, the Foley Square mural in Lower Manhattan and the one in Harlem were unveiled, with the multicolored letters of Black Lives Matter replete with imagery related to Black people who were killed by the police, as well as vibrant symbols of freedom, hope and joy.
In Cincinnati, the mural appears in the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag, with silhouettes, phrases and textured designs filling the letters. In Jackson, Mich., it was designed it in a graffiti-style font. In Portland, Ore., the letters contained a timeline of historical injustices in the state.
The purpose of the Fifth Avenue project at Trump Tower was clear: to rile up the president, who called the mural planned outside his high-rise a “symbol of hate.” The mural was intended to get the message up quickly; the stenciling and outlining was done by the Department of Transportation, and roughly 60 volunteers helped lay down 100 gallons of traffic paint.
The other murals in Manhattan were intended not as a political statement meant for President Trump to see but as an opportunity for local artists, community togetherness and discussions about race and policing. The outlines of the enlarged “Black Lives Matter” letters are filled with intentionally placed symbols and colors.
“I wanted the design to embody our experience as a whole as a Black community and what we strive for,” said Patrice Payne, one of the artists involved with the mural at Foley Square.
Justin Garrett Moore, the executive director of the city’s Public Design Commission, said that there is a clear difference between the murals borne from mayoral decision making, which serve as an acknowledgment that public officials have heard the calls of racial justice protesters, and the community-driven murals, where there’s a deeper connection to the space and the message.
“These are Black communities that are really wanting to have an expression for this historic moment that we’re in,” he said.
It happened to be a mural near the White House, spearheaded by the mayor of Washington, Muriel E. Bowser, that set the groundwork for the countrywide spilling of paint on the ground.
After the Washington mural made the news, an organization representing small business owners in Harlem, called Harlem Park to Park, started discussing what their version of a Black Lives Matter mural would look like.
There was a certain expectation that Harlem, known as the epicenter of Black culture, needed to take the mural trend a level up, said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, the group’s executive director. The resulting mural was two sprawling sets of words on either side of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, between 125th and 127th Streets. On the northbound side, eight artists had creative control over two letters each. The southbound side was painted red, black and green by a collection of community groups.
“We wanted to make sure the mural didn’t just represent words on the street but embodied the Harlem community,” Ms. Evans-Hendricks said.
The artists were chosen by LeRone Wilson, the mural’s curator, who also designed the first two letters. The “B” that he designed depicts the Ancient Kemetic goddess Ma’at, with feathered wings reaching across the curves of the letter, and the bird deity Heru, welcoming the spirits of those who have died at the hands of police into the universe.
Within the “L,” he painted the names of 24 Black people killed by the police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and Amadou Diallo.
Within the outlines of several other letters, the artists painted images associated with the outrage over the treatment of Black people by the police: The faces of Ms. Taylor and Sandra Bland and Mr. Floyd’s daughter occupy the two “T”s in the word “matter.” The “I” in “lives” contains the badge numbers of the four police officers charged in connection with Mr. Floyd’s death.
The artists received advice from the city’s Department of Transportation on what materials to use on the asphalt. They took the agency’s recommendation of using road line paint used for markings on streets and sidewalks, which many muralists right now are doing to make the street art more durable.
The act of painting the mural in Harlem was designed as a community event, with catering from local restaurants and help painting from the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem and Harlem Little League.
“Every day we were out there, hundreds of people wanted to be involved,” Mr. Wilson said.
And after the mural’s unveiling, the space became a gathering place for people, as well as a space to appreciate art at a time when museums are shut because of the pandemic.
The creators of the mural are hoping that the city agrees to a request to keep the street open until the end of the summer, as the city did with a mural in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was created with the yellow traffic paint and contains the names of Black people killed by the police.
The location for the Harlem mural was chosen because it was at the heart of a Black community. In Lower Manhattan at Foley Square, it was because of a nearby cherished national monument: It draws meaning from its proximity to the African Burial Ground, which contains the remains of New York City’s colonial African-American community.
Amina Hassen, an urban planner with WXY, an architectural and urban design firm that worked on the project, said that the location along Centre Street, near the state and federal court buildings, was also significant because of its connection to the policing and incarceration of Black people.
As with the Harlem mural, the artists of the Foley Square project had control over the designs within the outline of the “Black Lives Matter” letters, but the city still had to review the designs to make sure they complied with safety standards. (This time the artists were chosen by the Department of Cultural Affairs.)
They first blocked out the mural in 3-D software, carefully avoiding any street features that the Department of Transportation said they couldn’t paint over, said Jhordan Channer, the architectural designer for the project. When it came time to install the 600-foot-long mural, they first painted a white canvas and a drop shadow to make sure the letters stood out. Tats Cru, a group of professional muralists in the city, executed the artists’ designs with heavy-duty traffic paint, exterior-grade enamel paint and spray paint. They were assisted by youth from Thrive Collective, an arts mentoring program that works with New York public schools.
For the last word, “matters,” Ms. Payne started in the “M” with the image of a Black woman as an ancestral figure and nurturer. The design progresses to images of broken shackles, a raised fist, a sun peeking out behind storm clouds, with a tattered American flag at the forefront.
Since the first mural was unveiled in Washington, some segments of the Black Lives Matter movement have criticized the murals as being purely symbolic gestures from politicians at a time when activists are calling for the defunding of police departments.
The artists and designers behind the community-driven murals say that there are important uses for this symbolism, like education and providing meaningful public art commissions by Black artists.
Ms. Evans-Hendricks remembers seeing a mother walking her son down the letters of the Harlem mural, which run between 14 and 16 feet wide, and explaining the meaning of each word.
“It has come alive in a way that the community really needed,” she said.
But they also recognize the limits of the murals and hope that the solidarity coming from politicians goes beyond paint on the street.
“I’m very interested in the art going up and taking my child to visit it and discuss it,” Ms. Dawson said. “But I’m more interested in the tangible change that must come from this.”