Aug 1

Walls For Justice: Protest with a Paintbrush

by: Chad Eric Smith

In March 2020, a 26-year-old Black woman and emergency medical technician named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police during a late-night raid on her home where her boyfriend was also sleeping. This murder, for a time, escaped scrutiny due to officials, the media, and the general public being distracted by the headline-consuming COVID-19 pandemic. Two months later, George Floyd was murdered during his arrest by Minneapolis police officers over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. Commentators suggested that Taylor’s killing would not have received much attention if not for the George Floyd protests, as Black women who are victims of violence are often missing from national headlines. Nonetheless, these two separate murders, at the hands of those who take an oath to serve and protect, sparked a wave of civil unrest and nationwide protest. 

Mural Arts Philadelphia responded in a variety of ways, including with a public service announcement campaign entitled Emerge, which was meant to “foster inspiration and hope, acknowledging not just the impact of the intersections of COVID-19 and systemic racism in America, but the innate strength and resilience of people of color challenged by both pandemics.” However, Mural Arts is not just a reactive organization. Instead, like a social gardener, it’s in the business of planting seeds, inspiring and empowering future leaders to emerge as change agents.

Samuel Rodriguez. Photo by Steve Weinik.

One of those change agents is Mural Arts teaching artist and creative entrepreneur Sam Rodriguez, and that historic and gloomy summer in 2020 didn’t just spark outrage; it sparked in him an idea. Fear of protesting during a deadly pandemic inspired Rodriguez to “protest with a paintbrush” by recruiting people to paint impactful and unifying social justice messages on plywood boards that covered up storefront windows around Philadelphia.

A Symbol of Hope 

Walls for Justice, the brainchild of Rodriguez, was born. He wanted to use art to connect people and change the world for good. Walls for Justice’s mission is to “empower and enhance the platform of social movements, communities, people of color, and all other marginalized groups, through the use of murals, beautification projects, demonstrations, and other artistic mediums.”

You can view much of the Walls for Justice team’s work here.

Instead of anger and despair, our words, our art, became a symbol of hope.

- Samuel Rodriguez

Born to Fight 

For a long while, Rodriguez, 31, could not decide whether he wanted to be an artist or a professional fighter. “I decided to use art to fight for other people with other people,” said Rodriguez. “If we all can inspire just one person with our talents, we can make a difference in the world.”

Rodriguez has been teaching for more than ten years for various art organizations, but it was at Mural Arts where his journey began. He first connected with Mural Arts’ Art Education program in 2006-08 in an after-school program at Olney High School in the Olney-Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia. Through Mural Arts’ Artrepreneurs program, Rodriguez learned how to navigate and prosper in the creative community,  soft and hard skills he teaches others today. He even had the opportunity to travel to Ireland, along with other budding artists and Mural Arts’ Director of Art Education Lisa Murch. In 2010, Rodriguez became a teaching artist for the Artrepreneurs Program and continues to pour into young people to this day.

Now, he is using all that he has learned to fight for a better world.

Rodriguez speaks with mixed-media artist and designer Joy Ude during a Artrepreneurs class, December 4, 2019. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Instead of focusing on art making, I focus on the intention. Rather than focusing on how the art will come out, I focus on how it will make people feel. By removing myself, the art becomes bigger than the art itself.

- Samuel Rodriguez

Rodriguez paints at a Blocktoberfest event at The Roots mural site, October 13, 2012. Photo by Ashlee Espinal.

Kindness As a Passport 

Rodriguez wants Walls for Justice to be his legacy. He wants the brand to be recognized globally. And at the heart of that brand is kindness. 

One way to ensure the message of kindness transcends borders is by displaying it in the places where people come and go. Earlier this year, Rodriguez was contacted by the Philadelphia International Airport’s exhibitions program to create a unique mural for Terminal A-East Baggage Claim. The Wall for Justice team designed a colorful, pattern-filled mural that features the phrase, We the People of Tomorrow, along with iconic Philadelphia symbols. The painting acts as a friendly greeting to everyone passing through Terminal A and shares a forward-thinking dream for the future.

Learn More by watching the video below:

One small act of kindness. Love can fill the biggest empty spaces. We don't need to know the end result. We just need to trust our calling and talent. Now, what change will you make to contribute to our world?

- Samuel Rodriguez

Ways to Get Involved 

The Walls for Justice studio is located at the Cherry Street Pier in Old City, the birthplace of American independence. The space is “a year-round, mixed-use public space on the central Delaware River waterfront.” If Rodriguez is a Superman, then Studio 8 of Cherry Street Pier is his “Fortress of Solitude,” except all are welcome. There you may find him listening to some of his favorite songs, like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “Smooth” by Santana, or “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra. But most importantly, there you can participate in art activities that will inspire and empower you for days to come. 

SOURCE: Cherry Street Pier Website (https://www.cherrystreetpier.com/news/get-to-know-walls-for-justice/)

For example, later this month, on Friday, August 19, Rodriguez will lead a Mural Training Workshop. There will be a Mural Arts Student Exhibition that day, as well. On Saturday, August 20, Walls For Justice will join forces with the Better Bike Share Partnership for a community art ride along the Delaware River Trail. Along the way, murals will be highlighted, and discussions will be had about how meaningful those public artworks are to communities. After the ride, participants will have the opportunity to paint their helmets, spreading positive, friendly messages to onlookers. The event will start at the Race Street Pier Indego Station, and bikers will make their way to Penn Treaty Park. The event is FREE so sign up today, here

To learn more about Walls For Justice and to see their full event schedule, visit https://wallsforjustice.org/

Last updated: Aug 1, 2022

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