Why the defacing of my ‘We Can’t Breathe’ mural matters

“Sabotage of street art and graffiti goes with the territory.” I’m a street artist I know that. I’m not precious about my street art. I understand it is ephemeral.

What’s different here is the impact. It took me 5 hours to decide whether to share the above tweet I received of my defaced ‘We Cant Breathe’ mural. And 72 hours after writing it, to decide to post this blog. I know that street art can be defaced by anyone from: authorities, other artists, individuals or groups. However, it’s key to recognise that regardless of who or intent, the resonance was symbolic and highly emotive amidst a weekend of global Black Lives Matter protests. To a black/ brown/ BAME/ POC it was like putting up a sign asking people to stop killing your family and someone comes along and defaces it. And I have an inbox of messages saying as such. I’ve also had messages from white people who recognise this too.

Hearts are heavy right now. Conversations are being had that some of us have buried for years out of self preservation and vulnerability. We are not used to sharing our lived experiences on demand. We learn at a very young age that some people get defensive, offensive, gaslight or simply can’t relate when we talk. So we assess what is safe for us to talk about physically, emotionally and socially. Which comments we should confront, ignore or pretend we didn’t hear. I knew all of this from the age of 4 years old. Hence why it took me 5 hours to post the tweet. It also hit home that had I been a white person without this lived experience, it would not have taken 5 hours to post.

I digress as I’m just overhearing my neighbour angrily talking about “statues in rivers” being ridiculous and “if it wasn’t for Churchill we’d all be speaking German.” Before talking about his green beans growing. We don’t have the privilege to change the subject to green beans.

Add to this disability. As an intersectional person with degenerative autoimmune conditions, discrimination and navigating the world is amplified ten fold. I’ve had many requests to redo the mural, and here is the reason that won’t be possible – not imminently at least. I was invited to paint alongside other artists all doing their thing. I am in the shielding group so haven’t been out in 4 months. Weighing up the situation, in terms of my ppe, social distancing etc I decided it would be safe especially as the pavements were still deserted. There was route planning too as public transport is not an option when I paint as I cannot carry anything much heavier than a coat, and spray paint is heavy. (I also possibly have some road fines coming as Google Maps abandoned me down some one way streets). This was to be Jelly’s big day out!

But this mural didn’t start with a sketch. It started a week beforehand with taking my chemotherapy early, biologic injections and extra pain medication (which I usually try not to take due to the nasty side effects such as internal bleeding and organ erosion), daily physio exercises, extra nutritional supplements, topical cbd and sleeping in arm paddles. But like all artists, painting is my passion. So to be able to do street art and use a spray can (literally) I need to take these measures in advance.

I then drove one hour overnight to my boyfriend’s flat to be closer for the morning journey. (I moved out before lockdown as he’s a key worker. We haven’t seen each other in 4 months and so that in itself was emotional for both of us, especially as we still socially distanced and slept in separate rooms.) The morning of this mural was an early start. It was only a 30mins journey. But I set my alarm for 5.45am to get my body mobile for 9am. Therefore, despite it taking just a few hours to paint on the day, this mural actually took me 168 hours or 1 week to do.

My disability is relevant to my We Can’t Breathe mural. It is important to recognise the implications of intersectionality when considering minority groups which further pushes us down the equality chain.

For example when travelling, I need airport assistance which is generally atrocious and inconsistent for all disabled people. However when I’m by myself or with a black or brown friend I am viewed with suspicion, my disability is questioned, or I get forgotten. When I’m with a white female friend it’s a bit better but I often still get forgotten and it’s a fight to get assistance. When I’m with my 6ft 2 white boyfriend ie the epitome of white privilege, even if the wheelchair is slow to arrive, the conversation is usually respectful and they placate my boyfriend. As a disabled brown person I am humanised depending on who I am with by default.

And nobody made me do that mural or any artwork but it is part of my soul and I have as much right to paint as anyone else. I am not offering suggestion on who defaced the mural, which has since been completely covered by the owner/ landlord/ council along with the other artists work. I am simply expressing the impact of a mural being tarred over which depicted a black woman, with the words We Can’t Breathe, has had on people of all shades, including myself a disabled brown artist amidst a time when Black Lives Matter is at the forefront.

It took 5 hours to decide to post a tweet
It took 168 hours to do a one day mural
It took 72 hours to have the courage to post this blog
I have since been back in my cave shielding

Whilst just hearing my neighbour saying “I’m not racist but..”

I look forward to the day when I can change the subject to ‘green beans’.

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