As Oscar Grant took the train from his Oakland home on New Year’s Eve in 2008 to celebrate in San Francisco’s Embarcadero neighborhood, he almost certainly did not consider the events of that night becoming the crux of violent protests, public art campaigns or feature films. But when a police officer named Johannes Mehserle shot and killed an unarmed Grant as he returned home by train early on New Year’s Day, his life suddenly took on new weight in the ongoing battle for social justice. Protests erupted. Debates raged. Mural after mural went up around Oakland in Grant’s memory.
And now, Grant, a young black man who was just a month from his 23rd birthday when he died, is the subject of a film called Fruitvale Station, named for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) terminal he was shot in. As part of the effort to raise awareness for the film and its depiction of inequity, another three, large-scale memorial murals have been commissioned to be done by artists known for their politically charged and publicly visible works of art: Lydia Emily, Ron English and LNY. The difficulty facing these often-dissident painters is balancing an honorific tone without losing any weight in the commentary of the mural. This is all while speaking to an expanded audience—unlike the numerous paintings of Grant that adorn Oakland, these new pieces will appear in San Francisco, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
“The mural needs to speak to a neighborhood that needs to hear it,” Emily, who is painting her contribution on the wall of the Ian Ross Gallery in San Francisco, told Complex. “Oakland doesn’t need another Oscar grant mural. They have plenty. The idea of him being immortalized like this needs to spread outside of Oakland.”
At first, it might seem odd that three of the most visible and subversive street artists of the last decade (or in English’s case the last three decades) would sign on to a corporate-sponsored branding opportunity. But for these artists, issues of civil rights are so close to their work that the chance to bring attention to the matter overwhelmed any sort of compromise they might encounter.
“I think the issue is more important than the art or the movie that comes out of this,” English said, “and that’s why I decided to do this project.”
He has yet to finalize plans for his mural in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, as a few initial designs had been scrapped in committee. (They were deemed too dark, too aggressive and too imagistic of weapons.) One design he described as Rockwell-esque included crosshairs on a black Boy Scout. Another simply demonstrated visually the difference between a taser and a handgun—Mehserle’s defense was that he confused his handgun for his taser.
Grant may have been flawed, but certainly had struggles. He was pulled from the train that January 1, 2009 night for allegedly fighting with other passengers. He had struggles with drugs, firearms and the law. He served a healthy amount of time in prison. He had a young daughter. And it’s because Grant was not exceptional is why his story resonates today.
“The reason why what happened to [Grant] was so important was because he wasn’t exceptional,” Emily said. “But you don’t have to be exceptional to deserve to be treated fairly. He was just a guy with the regular kind of struggles that we all have. I don’t want to paint him as an angel or a saint or somebody who lived to be beaten down by the police because that’s not how he lived either. He was just a guy and this was his city and this is what he looked like. And that should be enough to be treated fairly.”
“I think it’s very important that Oscar Grant was an everyman and I think that’s why ‘I Am Oscar Grant’ became such an important slogan,” LNY told Complex. “Because we are all Oscar Grant. I could get shot. You could get shot. Sure there’s lots of demographic changes and that makes a big difference in the whole issue. But he’s a lightning rod for a lot of different violent crimes that are still happening.”
To solidify this point, LNY said he was researching other, similar situations to Grant’s for his Williamsburg mural. To both localize the situation and this idea that Grant was an everyman, he said he’ll be painting portraits of victims of police brutality from around the New York City area. Though he hasn’t solidified exactly what he’s going to do for the mural that he’ll begin painting in early July, he’s certain Grant himself will not be in the piece.
“The Oscar Grant image has become a public image,” LNY said. “It’s already out there, people know about it. It started off as a huge street art mural wave in Oakland and it’s great. One of the reasons I think they ended up contacting [us artists] was just to keep up that sentiment. But I want to represent people who aren’t represented, and he has been so thoroughly that his image is losing impact. It’s becoming iconic of something that’s not Oscar, but of something that’s more, bigger.”
Also concerned that his image had saturated street art and political art, Emily initially shied away from using Grant’s likeness. Because there are only two known pictures of Grant as an adult, murals memorializing him had all been starkly similar. She solved this problem by combining the images in a 3D modeling computer program called Maya to see Grant from a new perspective. Though her portraiture plan is solidified, it is almost certain to be the least overtly political of the three pieces, even if LNY’s isn’t incredibly didactic either.
“I don’t come out with these huge grand statements that tell you what to think,” Emily said. “I try to say things that will possibly entice you to look up the issue yourself and then decide, ‘What does she mean by that?’ My stake in it is to paint Grant as a person. And just try and figure out a way for you to care about him as a person without him being a god or a hero or an icon. Can you walk by and care about this guy just because he’s human, just because he’s one of us?”
Now, she, English and LNY just need to get some paint on the walls.