"There are some beautiful people out there that have left the world better off. I'm glad I could share some of them over Black History Month, one portrait at a time," says Mel Waters when talking about his piece-a-day project in San Francisco's Mission District in February. Funded from his own pocket, the 34-year-old artist devised the project for himself and executed it on city walls (and one delivery truck) to pay tribute to famous African Americans during Black History Month.
"It struck me as a very interesting concept, particularly in an art culture that mostly lacks social content," says graffiti and street art expert, photographer and famed historian Jim Prigoff, who first shared the story with us after he began spotting black and white aerosol portraits of folks like Rosa Parks, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott Heron popping up around town.
"Piquing my curiosity I found they were part of a series of 29 portraits painted one a day throughout the month, principally in the Mission District, but running from Chinatown on the north to the south. Given that Mel either walks or takes public transportation it became logistically challenging," says Prigoff.
As he painted the portraits, Mr. Waters says his interest in these historical figures grew stronger and the project affected him in positive ways. "During the project, I did research nightly on who I was going to paint the next day. There are so many amazing stories and choosing who to paint was another challenge for me," he says. "During my research I stumbled upon people I never heard of. That was an amazing experience in itself for me."
It is an unusual story, as Prigoff observes, because so much of graffiti has been traditionally about getting one's name up and marking territory and a large number of the new street artists appear to avoid political or socially themed work today. "In the beginning of modern Graffiti it was tags, then letters and characters," Prigoff explains. "As 'pieces' were developed, few raised social concerns as the focus was principally on the writer's names with various embellishments."
Waters says the act of painting daily, and painting quickly, has tightened his game and he also learned how to be more efficient with his time. "It was a real challenge from the start, not only to pay for it, but also to find the time to paint daily while keeping up with my other obligations and to find locations where I could paint," he says.
"I learned how to paint faster and I developed some new techniques. For example, I would roll out the face with bucket paint so I didn't have to spend much time filling the face in with spray cans. Then I would just come in with the spray paint for shading... There was no time to create masterpieces, so I learned to let go of that need for perfection, too."
With figures as varied as statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to singer Josephine Baker, poet Langston Hughes, and Major League Baseball player Larry Doby, Waters gives San Franciscans a taste of the vastness of African American contributions to history. Additionally he says he felt encouraged on his self-elected one man sojourn from people on the street who stopped by to talk with him while he was working.
"There were nice reactions from the communities I painted in and good feedback on social media. I love celebrating my culture, which is African American and Filipino, through my art. I think it's good to know about our past so we can use it to help us for the future."
Mr. Prigoff tells us that he was elated to meet the artist in person and to get a tour of the paintings and to find a hopeful and positive project like this - especially in a Street Art scene that he has been documenting since its inception. "The use of public space to raise political awareness is meaningful to me and I hope it will be to others," he says. "In this era of celebrated artists with major funding, Mel's "street story" in creating a dynamic project is heartening and in the spirit of how this street art movement came to be."
A collection of four important female figures: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Septima Poinsette Clark by Mel Waters. Black History Month 2016. San Francisco, CA. (photo © Jim Prigoff)
Our very special thanks to James Prigoff for sharing his observations, insights, and photographs here for BSA readers.
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