Indy boarded, Indy painted
I felt a drip of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as I stared up at the boarded window. Glimpsing at my sketch then back at the wall of plywood that stood firm in front of me, I cautiously took my paintbrush to the ragged board. Customers milled in and out of the storefront, pausing, perplexed and curious, staring on as I struggled to maneuver the boards, my canvas.
Some offered compliments, assuring me the mural looked great. Some thanked me for volunteering my time. Others stared quietly on, maybe thinking about the riots or the looted stores or the look of the bright paints working to disguise the damaged property. A spectacle on Monument Circle, an amateur painter takes to plastering a Black Lives Matter mural on a boarded tuxedo store.
When my mom asked me if I wanted to paint murals on a couple of boarded storefronts in Indianapolis, I immediately said yes. I was feeling emotionally drained after a week of consuming news and social media for hours on end and arguing with my dad about the objectively racist practices of the country’s prison-industrial complex. I was eager to make a tangible contribution to the movement. My mom’s friend had reached out to her about painting for a couple of businesses he manages downtown. She would paint a barber shop logo on its boarded storefront and I would paint some sort of ‘unifying’ image on the boards of the neighboring store, a men’s tuxedo store.
Initially, drawing up the mural was frustrating. I wanted to depict an explicitly political image: a “Black Lives Matter'' design accompanied by the Black Power fist. I had scrolled through countless photos on my Instagram and Facebook timelines depicting these bold, exceptional city murals. Portraits of George Floyd done in vibrant technicolor, bright street murals that spanned city blocks. The country’s infrastructure was being set ablaze with the colors of a revolutionary movement and I wanted my mural to follow suit.
Though, when I showed my mom the initial sketch, I was met with a worried gaze. She warned me that the mural had to be more subtle, something family-friendly and just woke enough to appease Indy residents. “We don’t know how these business-owners feel about the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. Ultimately, the mural was just a friendly favor, intended to disguise the ugly aesthetic of a boarded business, rather than to embolden protesters and city residents passing by. My heart sank at this realization and sank some more when I pictured my mom’s friend, maybe crinkling up his nose at the sight of an explicitly “Black Lives Matter” mural painted across one of his businesses.
Feeling disheartened, I drew up a cheery “We are IN this together” design with the “IN” depicting the outline of the state of Indiana. It was not the image I had in mind, but in Indiana, the message was a small step in the right direction. In something like a compromise, I made a “Black Lives Matter” cardboard sign to set up at our paint station.
The day came, and my mom and I took to Monument Circle in the heart of Indianapolis, paints and brushes in hand. It was a hot June morning and we immediately started perspiring as the sun beat down on the city street. The city was business as usual, with bikers whizzing past us on the Monon Trail and teenage girls making their merry way to Circle Centre Mall. Customers wearily crossed around my mom’s and my clumsily constructed painting station as they entered the boarded storefronts. Indy was months into a global pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement had ushered in social unrest and shook the otherwise conservative city with the sounds of progress. And on this summer morning, customers still filed into Red’s Classic Barber Shop for their grooming needs. Some wearing face masks, others not.
An hour or so later, a homeless man stumbled past us yelling nonsensically about smashing windows. On his third round down the street, the owner of Red’s came out to address him.
“Hey man, try and spare our windows tonight. We can’t handle it,” the owner said. Several Indy businesses had been looted over the course of the previous three or four days.
The homeless man muttered something, assuring the owner not to worry, he would watch out for businesses like his — the Red’s Barber Shop owner was Black. “Plus,” the man said, “they took away my hammer a couple days ago.”
I turned around to fiddle with my paints and looked again to find the homeless man gone; maybe he had moved along to another street. I tried to resume my work, my mind racing with thoughts of the riots and Black-owned businesses in Indy. The heart of the city had seen weeks of rioting following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, resulting in numerous shattered storefronts, looted businesses and even two fatal shootings. And city residents were receiving conflicting messages regarding who was instigating the violence, with the police chief assuring the public his officers considered protection their top priority and local activists claiming the police were the very catalyst of the violence. The chasm between the administration and the public was exacerbated when Mayor Joe Hogsett instated a countywide curfew just last week.
Willing myself to focus on executing the mural well, I carefully began painting in the design I had sketched on the plywood board. I stepped down from my ladder when ecstatic shouts rang from next door. It was the same homeless man from before, leaving the barber shop and shouting “NEW CUT!” as he proudly pet his freshly shaven head. He strutted down the street with swagger.
I realized what the barber shop owner had done, a free haircut, caring for the man who talked of smashing windows. It wasn’t consumer versus business-owner, accomplished man versus a homeless one, but one human caring for another during this time of unrest and violence. My design, “We are IN this together” had played out before me.
And suddenly, the phrase carried a new weight of significance even though it lacked the explicit political imagery I first wanted the mural to have. It was vague and fairly unremarkable but it conveyed an incredibly important truth: a free haircut, a helping hand, a community coming together despite the divisive nature of American politics. This idea challenged the dislike I carried towards the state that blazes red, the place where the likes of Mike Pence are churned out like butter. And the bitter sentiment I felt towards Indiana had only been compounded by the liberal paradise Ann Arbor seemed like in contrast. But, encounters like the one that transpired between the barber shop owner and the homeless man were showing me a unified Indianapolis. A city coming together as Black Lives Matter organizers introduced peaceful protests to Monument Circle. Indy was evolving and becoming better for it.
The police officers stalking the street grew in number as my mom and I finished with our murals. I was collecting the dripping paint cans when I heard the faint sounds of protesters, the song of their “Black Lives Matter” chant growing louder as they approached Monument Circle. I stepped down from my ladder to get a better look at the oncoming bunch. People of all colors, older men on skateboards with backpacks and younger people with signs made out of cardboard. Parents holding their child in one hand with a poster stretched high into the air with the other. A girl from my high school caught my eye and waved; she was marching at the front of line, chanting and bumping her fist in the air. The last time I saw her she was in a packed high school gymnasium, clad in an emerald-green graduation gown.
I took in the image because I knew it was one I would want to remember for years to come. Something to describe to my kids one day; a picture that showed Indy marching as one. On that day and all the days after, I’ve seen the city come together for the sake of Black Lives and each day, I’m more convinced we truly are in this together.