If you’re active on social media, you have likely seen some of the breathtaking artwork that has been created following the death of George Floyd.
Perhaps it’s portraits honouring the 46-year-old Minneapolis man, who died at the hands of police last month, or illustrations of Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 on Friday, had she not been killed by Louisville Metro Police in March.
Maybe you’ve also shared a number of appealing graphic designs to your own account, that aim to help spread important information about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a time when the world is demanding justice, with protests happening nationwide, art has acted as another way to bring us together and provide empathy. “Art heals … it’s a beautiful thing,” longtime Black Lives Matter activist Kenidra Woods tells ET.
Now, it’s time to meet the artists behind some of the most powerful images that have gone viral amid the fatal arrest of Floyd, and learn more about why they do what they do.
This 32-year-old from Rochester, New York, is the artist behind the @blessthemessy Instagram account. Her work has provided valuable information on everything from how to be an ally, to how to take action and demand justice.
“Creating has always been how I make sense of the world around me,” she explains to ET. “I use lots of mediums but for these I’ve been using my iPad Pro. It’s not a font, it’s my actual handwriting, so they’re sort of like digital protest signs.”
“I think the accessibility of digital art on a platform like this is why it’s crucial. It can move ideas and information so fast,” she continues. “I won’t lie. It’s weird and overwhelming at times. But it can show how connected we all are.”
And while Bird is thrilled to see so many people sharing such beautiful pieces of art (her own and that of her colleagues), she wants to remind everyone that real change happens off social media.
“These collective works are really just the start. After this comes the real work, of dismantling a broken system,” she says. “Making donations, signing petitions, amplifying voices of black folks, VOTING — all will be what makes the big changes for this moment in history.”
One of the most widespread illustrations being shared across all social media platforms comes from this 33-year-old Palestinian American artist, who depicted Floyd with his eyes closed, surrounded by bright flowers. At the time of publication, the photo has garnered nearly four million likes on Damra’s Instagram page.
“I think art can touch our emotional core in a way that the news can’t,” Damra tells TIME. “One thing that I have found we struggle with is actually imagining what kind of things we do want to see in our world. I feel like as artists, one role we could play is allowing ourselves and others to reimagine the possibilities.”
“Our society will likely never turn back to how it used to be before the pandemic and everything happening right now,” she adds. “Art can be a powerful catalyst in bringing more people together to take action. This has opened up a way to reach more marginalized communities who need art most during this heavy time.”
Another popular portrait of Floyd — which has been shared by a number of celebrities and public figures, including Michelle Obama — comes from this Los Angeles-based artist and activist. Smith has been commemorating other victims of police brutality for years, using Photoshop to create his digital work. He tells TIME that he intentionally gives his pieces an “unfinished quality.”
“I don’t like clean lines. That’s a parallel to all these lives,” he explains. “They did not have a chance to see their end. They should still be living.”
“Even if there isn’t an action item, people are still seeing an image of a human being. The narrative is building up more and more that these are people who should be on this earth who are not here anymore, and that their life is important,” he continues. “To share it, even if it’s just that, is important. I’m hoping that all of this leads to a bigger, more substantial change, especially with accountability of law enforcement.”
For Hilkey, a Brooklyn, New York, artist and designer for Color of Change, it’s all about creating work that tells a story and makes a lasting impact.
“I started doing these portraits a couple of years ago, the first one being of Stephon Clark, mostly as a therapeutic way for me to process the news of these lives that were so tragically lost — and murdered,” she explains to Allure. “The portraits have been my way of memorializing these lives and sharing their story. It’s always been extremely important to me especially as an artist and designer of color to use my skills to try and make a difference and make this type of work.”
Yahnker, who is based in California, tells TIME that he chose to draw Floyd as the “gentle giant” he was described as by his family and friends. He says his latest piece of work was created using colored pencils on a sheet of kraft paper, and was a “gut reaction” to Floyd’s death.
“It absolutely guts me that if Mr. Floyd were a white gentle giant or anything other than black, he’d still be alive today,” Yahnker shares. “As a Jew, indoctrinated since birth to the scores of my own ancestry massacred by the hands of evil forces, I know full well that silence itself can be a painfully violent and oppressive act.”
“I am a firm believer in the power of the collective,” he adds. “If we all put a drop in the bucket, it can turn into a tidal wave.”
CADEX HERRERA, GRETA MCLAIN & XENA GOLDMAN
Off social media, many artists have also been taking their work to the streets. This group of artists, for example, are the creators behind the beautiful public mural of Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was heavily featured during his televised memorial service on Wednesday. It’s painted on the side of a grocery store, just down the street from where Floyd died.
“We wanted to portray him in a positive light. Not as a martyr, but as a hero,” Herrera tells ARTnews. “We wanted to make sure that his name was remembered.”
“It was a terrible thing that happened to him,” he adds. “It’s devastating, and I hope that at least some peace can come from this to reflect on a life of a human being that was unnecessarily taken