Lance Johnson awoke in Denver on Thursday, Feb. 2, to his phone buzzing with notifications, his artwork having featured heavily .
The clip, which debuted CPD’s Black History Month-themed police cruiser, named "History 1," opens focused on Johnson’s graffiti-inspired contributions to a larger mural, gradually cycling through a series of motivational words spray painted by the artist on the south exterior wall of the King Arts Complex: “Dreams,” “Freedom,” “Equality,” “Inspiration.”
The camera then lingers on an image of Martin Luther King Jr. (a part of the same mural) before pivoting to footage of an out-of-commission police cruiser adorned with a Black History Month logo and stamped with a quote from the late Civil Rights icon – “Be the peace you wish to see in this world” – that he likely never uttered, . The clip quickly generated a groundswell of criticism and within .
“Being in Denver, we were two hours behind, so it was kind of in the atmosphere already by the time I watched [the video],” said Johnson, who had no prior awareness of the clip and would not have signed off on his artwork being included had he been approached beforehand. “And I was absolutely disgusted. Like many people, I’ve done my best to avoid the video released just a week ago of a young man (Tyre Nichols) getting murdered by the police. So, I was upset, and I was confused by the timing. People are demanding answers and reform and real community engagement. And we get hit with a video promoting the redesign of a car? It didn’t make sense to me. And to be honest, it was pretty traumatizing to see my art in there, celebrating that."
The artwork featured in the opening of the video is taken from “Heart of Protest,” a mural commissioned by King Arts and completed in 2020 by a trio of artists: Johnson, Marcus Billingsley and AdaObinna Moore.
In a phone call, Jevon Collins, performing arts director at King Arts, said the organization had no awareness that CPD had recorded footage of the mural or would be using it in promoting “History 1.” He also said that King Arts has no control over how the artwork is used, since it appears in a public space.
But in interviews, the artists said they were still reeling from having the piece co-opted by some of the same forces the work is meant to confront.
Painted as a means of grappling with the social climate in the aftermath of Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd, the mural depicts a number of Black men and women killed by the authorities, including Ty’re King, who was shot and killed by Columbus police in 2016 at age 13. Painted in vivid color, it captures the spirits of those lost – individuals Billingsley termed "beacons of hope" – making it all the more striking to the artist that the footage used by CPD was presented in black and white, sapped of its color, its vitality.
“I’ll be honest, I’m still processing it, but I was able to talk to some family members, and my older sister, who is my life and my guidance. And we talked through what my art means and what it stands for, and basically that I had to stand up,” said Billingsley, who now lives and works in Los Angeles. “My art is a reflection of what’s around me, and in that landscape I, personally, could only think about those that lost their lives so that we can continue to live, and specifically me as a Black Man. … The sad thing about it is that we never know when we’re going to become one of those beacons of hope, whether tragically or purposefully.”
For Johnson, the words he painted on the mural – dreams, freedom, equality, inspiration – were explicitly meant for the kids living in the surrounding King-Lincoln neighborhood who might find some solace in an uplifting message. "I'm always thinking of how words have power," he said, "and how I can inspire someone who grew up in the same type of community I grew up in."
Johnson, who was born and raised in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx, New York, came up , and he’s knowledgeable of the ways public art can be misused and misappropriated. “That’s part of the game when you create public art for institutions,” said Johnson, who has avoided corporate commission work related to social justice issues for this reason. “But this [mural] was for a Black organization, for the community.”
“That’s the mentality in Columbus: ‘We paid for it, it’s ours, and we can do what we want with it.’ And that’s cool, that’s how contract work goes,” said artist David Butler. “But it should be common decency that when it surrounds a social issue that might be a hot topic, in a month when everyone is focused on Blackness, and in the wake of another Black person being killed by the police, maybe you shouldn’t put Black art behind your shitty looking Black History clown mobile.”
Everyone interviewed noted that there are dimensions with this situation that are unique to artists of color, who are often contracted when institutions or organizations want to create public-facing art that speaks to issues of social justice – leaving the artist more vulnerable to those works being taken out of context or misused.
“I don’t know if that’s an issue that artists who aren’t people of color really have to deal with,” Billingsley said. “And I have had to contend with that in the past in Columbus, specifically, so I think this is a good time to critique the city in its efforts in art and what opportunities they actually give certain people.”
Butler described Columbus’ relationship with public art as “toxic,” particularly in regard to the city’s treatment of its Black artists, who are often overlooked until a political statement is needed. “When a police officer kills somebody else in the city, they call our Black asses: ‘Come clean up our windows!’” Butler said. “And even when you do the work, you don’t know how it’s going to be used or what happens to it afterward. They had citywide exhibitions of all the [created after the May 2020 protests], and they had them at Fort Hayes and in the galleries at Wexner Center and Urban Arts Space. But where is all of that shit now? Is it stored? Is it being preserved?”
“Artists of color are always on the front lines of social justice issues, which makes us very appealing to organizations seeking the professional equivalent of street cred,” said poet, cultural critic and Streetlight Guild owner Scott Woods. “The problem is that the invitations for artists to participate are rarely sincere and almost never long-lasting. We're usually an additive, not the point, so we become extremely vulnerable to having our work misrepresented in execution. It's how [Black lives matter] murals ended up in Experience Columbus advertising, or art intended to celebrate Latin culture is covered up and when it is in fact simply too cultural for a landlord's taste.”
Woods said the most important thing artists can do when their works are misrepresented is to speak out “as loudly as possible” and let the public know this use isn’t representative of the art or its creation. He also said it is incumbent on artists to communicate with one another as a means of safeguarding against these situations.
“Almost every artist of color I know has an institutional horror story,” Woods said. “Communication is the first step toward protection. Shared information allows us to consider the offers we receive, and who is doing the offering. We can learn what our worth is. We can combine forces and create spaces that empower us. We can generate freedom where we don't believe it exists. … I have never encountered a problem as an artist or an organizer in the arts that could not be solved by coming to the people.”