‘Hopefully they will make positive changes in the world’: Digital archive to store plywood art is growing

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In the shadow of Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, Todd Lawrence is focusing his smartphone on a simple graffiti message left on a pull-down door.

"Stop Killing Us," it reads.

"The pain, the anger, the rage, the mourning," Lawrence, an English professor at the University of St. Thomas, said. "We’re still seeing some of that on the streets."

Nearby, University Avenue is lined by block after block of boarded-up buildings.

Some structures are under repair; the plywood is being taken down here and there. But artists and graffiti taggers have turned the area into a gallery of emotion.

"I think preserving all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, is so important," said Chioma Uwagwu, a 2020 St. Thomas University graduate. "Tell the true story of what happened."

Plywood and paint are the foundation. Elaborate murals to stark messages are slowly being removed as businesses begin the reopening process.

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Many of those pieces of street art are in tribute to George Floyd.

"George Floyd was murdered," Lawrence said quietly. "In that next week, we decided to do a database for George Floyd and anti-racism street art."

So, using their phones and collecting images from social media, Lawrence and his colleagues are assembling a massive photo archive.

"The streets, the city, is a place for expression," said Dr. Heather Shirey, a University of St. Thomas Art History professor. "That’s what art does."

The project began as an attempt to catalog and map artists in the Midway area, but that was before Floyd’s death.

"A lot of the early work that came up here on University Avenue on the first night, a lot of anti-police stuff, a lot of stuff advocating violence," Lawrence recalled. "Now, we’re seeing a lot of pieces that are about coming together, and peace, and collaboration … more sort of a positive vision of the future."

So far, the team has collected more than 400 images. They hope to archive around 2,000 photos by the end of the summer. A record of Floyd’s death and all that came afterward.

"To see George Floyd get murdered right in front of us is, in a way, to see yourself get murdered," Lawrence said. "I think it amplifies the feelings of sadness and pain and loss that we all feel."

Many of the images were taken in the Twin Cities. Others are from Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, NY, Washington, D.C., and from as far away as Leeds, England, Naples, Italy, and Bethlehem.

"It’s so important to document these pieces because they’re so fleeting," Shirey explained. "The tags themselves, they’re put up in a moment of a lot of passion. A feeling, really a call for action."

One photo in particular, displaying one of Floyd’s last words, affected her deeply.

"It was really a simple tag that just said ‘Mama,’" Shirey recalled. "To me, the text, just ‘Mama,’ really spoke to me at that moment, it spoke to the tragedy, and I thought it was really powerful."

A pictorial history. A tragic timestamp.

"It’s like a mix of like sadness, but also pride," Uwagwu declared.

She hopes future generations will learn from the archive — and will want to know more.

"Just makes you feel like you’re one with the community," she said. "Even if you don’t live there, you kind of like feel it in your soul. So that’s why I think creating something out of all this anger is just so powerful. That’s why it needs to be preserved."

A permanent record showing how artists portrayed what was happening around them.

A group memory of the events surrounding George Floyd’s death — and a tribute to his life.

"We think of it as a kind of activist database that can really be used and deployed, and continue to let these works speak," Shirey said. "And, hopefully, they will make positive changes in the world."

Click here to see the full archive.