Brooklyn’s Muralists Take a Stand

How activist artists are making immigrants’ voices heard, despite mounting challenges

Many building walls all over Brooklyn are covered by 40-foot advertisements or sleek glass floor-to-ceiling windows. But the borough is also a gallery for muralists, cultivating waves of activist artists who seek to represent the communities around them.

Sunset Park in particular, with its diverse immigrant population and sizable industrial buildings, is one neighborhood that attracts this sort of large-scale communal art, much of it a commentary on pressing sociopolitical issues that afflict the community, including immigration.

Immigrants have long faced social, political and legal challenges—and continue to do so. Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled to greenlight President Trump’s plan to deny green cards to immigrants who may need government aid. In the face of this type of exclusion, activist artists like Harry Mena, 58, who is spearheading an ambitious project in Sunset Park, seek to show messages of unity.

“We’re in the real dark ages with Trump, but we’re moving into a renaissance,” said Mena. “We’re going to come out of the dark ages soon, and we can all be a part of that.”

The project, named “Sunset Park Railroad,” seeks to welcome the neighborhood’s historically immigrant community through art. The first of ten planned murals, which is slated for completion in October this year, will decorate the brick tower of the Bethelship Norwegian United Methodist Church, located on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park. Designed by four artists of different nationalities, the mural will showcase the Biblical verse “love your neighbor” in English, as well as the phrase “peace, love, unity” in nine languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Korean.

“We don’t see our stories on mainstream media. So, we’re going to create it,” remarked Mena, who was born in Sunset Park, but whose parents are from Puerto Rico.

The history of murals as a form of protest can be traced to Mexico in the 1920s, when artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, collectively known as “los tres grandes,” or “the big three,” painted murals charged with social and political messages. The movement was aimed at reunifying the country under the post-Mexican Revolution government, and dedicated their art to the public, not to wealthy, private collectors. By the 1930s, the concept of murals as activism had spread to the United States.

Given its sheer diversity, New York City is especially a hotspot for social muralism, artists say, precisely because of the sheer number of immigrants that live here. According to a report by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2018, nearly 40 percent of residents are born outside the United States, according to the latest available statistics. In the face of the issues that this large immigrant population faces, such as discrimination and persecution, activist artists, many of whom are from immigrant families themselves, use their art to represent and unify these diverse communities.

As part of a 2006 project with Groundswell, a local organization that aims to foster community activism through art, Katie Yamasaki, 43, collaborated with a team of female students of color to paint the exterior walls of P.S. 24, a bilingual magnet school in Sunset Park.  The students, all first- and second-generation immigrants, interviewed their mothers about why they left their countries, and what the crossing was like. They then painted the walls of their school with these stories: a family in a hot air balloon drenched in sunlight and a mother draped in a quilt of flags of different nations, her children in the American flag.

The students’ interviews that inspired the mural on P.S. 24 underscored the unique way murals, especially collaborative ones, foster meaningful exchange. “The most invaluable aspect to this work is creating dialogue that didn’t exist before,” Yamasaki said.

In that spirit, Yamasaki says she even welcomes disagreement with the messages of murals. In 2008, for example, a group of protestors gathered in front of another of her Sunset Park murals, Informed, Empowered, which depicts three young women in a battlefield armed with a paintbrush, pencil and scroll of paper. Created in the middle of the Iraq War, the project sought to address the issue of military recruitment of youth in low-income, immigrant areas, but some decried the mural as un-American. Yamasaki, however, acknowledged the dissent. “What’s more American than protest, of freedom of expression?” she said.

However, some artists see a flagging in the mural movement, citing fewer community murals with socially or politically incisive messages. “The voices are dwindling,” said Maria Dominguez, a 69-year-old Puerto Rican artist who is working with Mena on the “Sunset Park Railroad.”   She attributes this decline to the commercialization of the art industry.

Younger artists are now doing more illustrative, “fun” murals rather than those with an activist message, which can be controversial and unpopular, she said. “Art can be used as a tool to express, but art can also be used to sell,” she commented.

Another aspect of commercialization is evident in what is happening in Brooklyn itself. For starters, many building owners who typically might welcome a protest mural on one of their walls are being priced out of the neighborhood due to gentrification. Funding is another barrier. The scaffolding alone can cost anywhere between $10,000 to $40,000. That, on top of other costs like insurance and materials, make murals a hardly inexpensive project. The projected budget for the first mural of Mena’s Sunset Park Railroad project is $40,000, which they are seeking from corporate and religious institutions, and individual donors.

Despite the challenges mounting against communal art, muralists aren’t standing down. Many are confronting the real problems that communities struggle with every day. From East Harlem to the South Bronx, artists and local organizations are striving together to keep New York City’s visual landscape alive—and the planned project in Sunset Park illustrates that.

“In a world where we’re so out of balance,” Yamasaki says, “we as artists need to use this art form to bring some of that balance back.”

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