With cans of spray paint as their medium, Charlotte muralists and graffiti artists are using the Knight Theater’s columns as a way to reflect on the city’s week of trauma.
The art was planned as part of the setting for this weekend’s Breakin’ Convention hip-hop festival. So the 10 artists involved weren’t explicitly asked to comment on or evoke the events following last Tuesday’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer.
But, as graffiti is by nature a sign of the times, many said they could not ignore it.
“Graffiti art, like most forms of popular culture, is a time capsule,” said Charlotte illustrator John Hairston Jr. “Everyone’s been hurting over what’s been going on during the last couple of weeks, and what I’d like to try to do is to try to help in the way that I can – with my two hands and spray cans.”
They were tasked with decorating giant compressed cardboard tubes that will be installed around columns inside the Knight Theater. The tubes will be removed and saved after the event, say officials with the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, which is hosting the city’s second annual celebration of hip-hop, created by London’s Sadler Wells. (Last year, graffiti artists decorated the actual columns, but they were painted over when the event was over.)
Hairston, 37, reported to the Knight Theater loading dock Tuesday morning with face masks and a duffel bag of spray paint. By mid-day, he’d sketched out a graffiti-style depiction of an African American man with his hands up in the middle of a city scene.
“Hip-hop unifies so many people from so many walks of life,” he said. “This is a platform. I think it would be a good time to address the elephant in the room.”
Tattoo artist Patrick Hairston (no relation to John Hairston Jr.) said he had no image in his mind when he started painting his column Sunday, but his work evolved into a depiction of a black man with the word “Hate” going in one ear and “Peace” coming out of his mouth. Tears are running down the man’s face.
“I was influenced by what’s gone on recently. You’ve got SWAT walking around the streets, the National Guard,” he said. “It’s a very tense environment we have.”
Charlotte artist Bree Stallings filled her column, which she named “The New Face of Queen Charlotte,” with imagery that she hopes starts discussion among event-goers.
On one side, a woman of Japanese ancestry wears a “Black Lives Matter” shirt below a rainbow-colored, seven-piece kimono, a break from the traditional eight-piece kimono, which “represents that we are always open to expanding and opening opportunities to fight for social justice,” Stallings says.
The woman’s earrings appear to be glass bulbs holding giant goldfish – an image she says she chose because of the idea that goldfish are forgetful.
“A lot of us in society, whether we’re women, the LGBT community, or people of color – we have these experiences that society wishes we would forget already. But we don’t. We can’t,” says Stallings, 25. “We carry them literally and figuratively around in our heads and they shape how we see, how we hear and how we interact.”
On the other side of the column, she created an area where people can pose beneath a crown that she painted, with the words “I am committed to justice. I am the new face of Charlotte.”
Stallings hopes people will take photos beneath the crown and post them to social media, sharing the message that a new, better Charlotte can emerge.
“I hope it’s a piece that creates conversation,” she says.
Blumenthal officials said the graffiti art is an essential part of the weekend’s convention, because of its importance in the hip-hop culture.
“The point is welcoming people into our theater who might not have been to our theater before,” said Michelle Youngs, special events manager for the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. “We didn’t think we could have the convention without it.”