New York’s Sidewalk Prophets Are Heirs of the Lascaux Cave Artisans

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About 17,000 years ago, in the caves of Lascaux, France, ancestors drew on grotto walls, depicting equines, stags, bison, aurochs and felines. They wanted to convey to other humans a political reality crucial to their survival: They shared their environment with other beings that looked and behaved differently from them.

Those early artisans drew these creatures over and over, likely fascinated by their forms and their powers, but also intuiting that whatever happened to the animals would almost certainly be a harbinger of what would happen to humans. The presence of the bison and stags, their physical fitness and numbers, their mass migrations would have indicated the onset of plagues or cataclysmic weather systems. Containing some 15,000 paintings and engravings from the Upper Paleolithic era, the caves in Southwestern France were not simply an exhibition space for local talent. They essentially constituted a public square where a community shared critical knowledge.

These portraits and discrete stories are not very different from our contemporary forums: the street art adorning boarded-up storefronts in New York City. They tell us about our shared political realities, the people we coexist with in social space and the ways in which our stories and fates are tied together. If you walk the streets of SoHo, the alleys of the Lower East Side, and heavily trafficked avenues in Brooklyn, as I did over the last few weeks, you will see these symbols and signs and might wonder at their meanings. What became apparent to me is that in the intervening millenniums between those cave paintings and the killing of George Floyd, the messages we share, like the sociopolitical circumstance that impel them, have become more complex.

Now street artists take account of the qualified legal immunity protecting police officers, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ramifications of a dysfunctional democracy, among other realities, using a well-developed visual language of cultural memes that illustrate the ideological battles among regional, racial and cultural factions. When we see the image of thin, green-skinned, bipedal beings with teardrop-shaped black apertures for eyes, we typically read “alien.” But when I see the image of such a creature holding a sign that reads “I can’t breathe,” I grok an urgent message: Even aliens visiting from light years away understand the plight of Black people in the United States because this situation is so obviously dire.

Today’s street paintings contain dispatches that proliferate across the city sphere — lovely, challenging, angry, remonstrative and even desperate. There are two critical things to note about them. They are different from graffiti, which to my eyes is egocentric and monotone, mostly instantiating the will of the tagger over and over again. I am here and you must see me, is the message.

The street artists in these works point beyond the self, to larger, collective issues. The other pressing point is that these images in chalk, paint and oil stick are ephemeral. Between the time I walked these districts and alerted the photographer to document them, five images had already disappeared. One was a depiction of the transgender freedom fighter Marsha P. Johnson, whose image was marked in chalk on the sidewalk in the ad hoc tent city created near Chambers Street a few weeks ago. It’s since been cleared out by police officers.

Unlike the caves of Lascaux (which are on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list) most of this work won’t be protected or anthologized — but it should be. The lingual messages and coded images on these plywood facades are the means by which future historians and researchers will come to understand this time and give our generation a proper name.

In SoHo the artist Nick C. Kirk serialized images of Donald Trump standing in for over-militarized police officers in a work constituting a visual indictment of a commander in chief who claims to deploy state forces only to quell violence and enforce the peace. The “VIP” sign on each shield seems to allude to his widely documented narcissism and suggests that the deployment of police is a self-serving ploy to burnish his public image. More, the running banner of “Demilitarize the Police” suggests that in the artist’s eyes, the police do not come to make peace.

On Wooster Street an unplanned collaboration by Erin Ko, Justin Orvis Steimer, EXR, Antennae and Helixx C. Armageddon reads “Wisdom Lies In/ Not Seeing Things But/ Seeing Through Things.” This reminds us that it’s incumbent on those of us who want to survive this time to learn to read the signs around us, the messages conveyed by street artists, ad hoc journalists, digital sources, and by legacy media. It suggests we need to read these communiqués critically, while not falling into the abyss of conspiracy theories.

Nearby, on Spring Street, this anonymous artist reminds us of the deeply problematic inequities between police officers and civilians. I think of the similar cases from several years ago: John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark, and of course, Breonna Taylor, who was only 26 when she was killed by police in her own home in March.

This sign by an unnamed artist means to stir up the anger that is simmering. The author recognizes that this moment in our history is an inflection point, a decisive pivot and what comes after this may not bring the cessation of hostilities, but a storm of social and political upheaval. Perhaps this is what is required to finally begin to build a just and equitable society.

The green aliens depicted on Canal Street made me both happy and sad. The anonymous artist understood that using aliens to make the point of the simultaneous precariousness and importance of Black lives would be an effective strategy. Seeing aliens advocating the Black Lives Matter campaign cleverly makes the point that even extraterrestrial observers can see our world needs to change.

On the other hand, this image of a raised fist by David Hollier at Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn offers a universal message by Frederick Douglass for a reborn America, one not pervaded by racism and greed. It proclaims that “A smile or a tear has no nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.” We tend to process and comprehend hardship through the lens of ethnic, gender and national differences. This sign is like a light illuminating a cave most people never enter.

The photographer Simbarashe Cha introduced me to this image, on Crosby Street, by Manuel Pulla, of Ella, a young organizer who holds a large megaphone. This is an apt metaphor for the activist’s voice. She calls for our attention, saying that those who give their commitment to bodily action can transform this country in ways our ancestors could only dream of.

On Union Street in Brooklyn I found a mural with the characters from the Peanuts comic strip carrying Black Lives Matter signs. It lifted me to see Franklin Armstrong, Charlie Brown and Snoopy joyously and resolutely marching together, as if the movement were the most normative reason to take to the streets. Peanuts, while a cartoon, is also a measure of the degree to which BLM has become an American cause rather than a minority issue.

On the Lower East Side I found a mural by Conor Harrington that both intrigued and flummoxed me. There is a figure that I take to be a man, in colonial era clothing (the red coat of what would have, in 1776, been the British faction) twirling a flag that seems to be changing from a blue and white striped field to a red and white scheme — as if the figure’s touch has sparked a revolution. This is perhaps a version of the received, hackneyed idea of the lone hero who can change the course of human history (the 19th-century “great man” theory of leadership promulgated by Thomas Carlyle, among others). Or perhaps it’s an attempt to demonstrate how quickly the flame of revolution can spark a fire that spreads everywhere.

Last, there is a bifurcated mural, “Sad Contrast,” on Mercer Street in SoHo that depicts a tearful Statue of Liberty. In the portrait, executed in a colorful expressionistic style, one side of the face is painted by Calicho Arevalo and the other by Jeff Rose King. Mr. King’s side suggests an Indigenous woman in a headdress, composed to mirror the crowned Roman goddess. Both figures look steadily at the viewer, essentially asking: How will you see us, and what will we mean to you?

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