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5 Digital Artists On Creating Instagram’s Protest Signs

NYLON spoke to the artists behind the posters, illustrations, and banners flooding social media in support of Black lives.

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — among continuous loss of Black lives at the hands of police and white supremacy — have sparked a revolutionary movement across the nation and the world. Naturally, social media has become a space for users to organize, push for actionable change, and to demand accountability as the discourses around systemic racism and oppression unfurl.

There are many ways people have chosen to use their platforms to demonstrate their support, from sharing resources, donating (and encouraging others to follow suit), or sparking important discussions about privilege with the followers. An integral part of making the movement more visual — and thus more prone to sharing — is the series of graphics, posters, banners, and artwork that have been floating around online and on the ground.

The powerful illustrations of those who lost their lives, infographics on what it really means to defund the police, and eye-catching messages calling for justice play an elevated role in getting the movement's messages across. For such significant work, the independent artists and illustrators behind the designs are continuously being tasked with the formidable job of communicating the raw pain and rage of millions of people in a way that's visually pleasing enough to draw attention and emotionally evocative enough not to water down the message. Surely not the easiest of jobs, especially when those designers are also Black, queer, Transgender, or have any other marginalized identity and thus simultaneously dealing with their own pain.

So, what’s it like creating art that will potentially become part of history? Below, five illustrators and designers discuss grief, what it's like making work that will truly bring about actionable change, and the pressure to speak for so many in such an important moment in time.

Dominique Roberts, Graphic Artist

What sort of art have you been working on to support the protests?

DR: In the wake of the injustices that have taken place in our world, I have been working on creating infographics and informational videos for people to send to their family and friends. Since starting, I’ve realized a lot of people are only just now getting behind and understanding what’s happening in our world. My main focus is to share clear messages from a Black perspective, with actionable steps to follow.

What’s been your primary source of inspiration?

DR: My graphics and style have been inspired by some of my favorite artists. Such as my friend Korean who created @werenotreallystrangers and my friend Quentin who created the design page @futurafreedesign. The response I’ve received is insane. I went from having barely a thousand followers to 34K in a week. I’m excited and hopeful that so many people are leaning into Black creatives and our voices.

Can the pressure to create meaningful work right now and its wide ranging impact get overwhelming?

DR: There has definitely been stress and pressure to keep coming out with content. Finding new information and ways to engage my followers can become a bit overwhelming to keep up with. Although I wouldn’t trade this new platform for anything. I’m so honored and humbled by this opportunity to share and help educate people on the topic of racism. I believe we are inching closer to becoming an anti-racist society.

Victoria Brown, Graphic Designer and Painter

What sort of art have you been working on to support the protests?

VB: I created a Black Lives Matter poster to display while I was protesting in DC. The poster contains the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor. I plan on attending another protest this weekend and I will be making more posters. I am the Graphic Design Specialist for a nonprofit that seeks to advance the global Black community and I took the initiative to create digital artwork that supports the Black Lives Matter movement. I am also sharing Black artists and Black owned businesses to those who follow my socials.

What’s been your primary source of inspiration?

VB: My primary source of inspiration is my lived experiences as a Black woman and translating those experiences through my art in a way that may also empower and uplift other women. Lately, I have been getting more followers and my art shared through the #amplifymelanatedvoices hashtag. I have noticed that now more than ever, non-POC are sharing my work, asking me questions and telling me how I inspire them to become an artist.

Can the pressure to create meaningful work right now and its wide ranging impact get overwhelming?

VB: This has been a truth for so long, that I do not feel any new added pressure. I have been making work like this for years.

Mere Watson, Visual Artist and Painter

What sort of art have you been working on to support the protests?

MW: I have mainly been working on art that touches on the unfortunate deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the underlying root cause that led to these and countless other deaths — racism. I'm creating poignant work that pierces through the veil of our “differences” and shows loud and clear that these crimes are not only an incursion on one race but is an attack on humanity as a whole. The gift of being able to create something visual is that once the viewer sees the work, it is now imprinted within their mind, compelling them to truly ponder on the gravity of these injustices. This is how I protest.

What has been your primary source of inspiration?

MW: My primary source of inspiration has been a combination of history and the intriguing, uncertain, and unprecedented times we find ourselves in. There has been so much going on in the world that it's almost impossible to not be inspired to create something that speaks to the times. I use history as a reference to look back at pages that were somewhat parallel to now and I play with these two elements to create a spark that leads to the work that I produce. Many have shown that the work resonates with them. I think that we are all in a collective consciousness of reflection and quite frankly hope.

Can the pressure to create meaningful work right now and its wide ranging impact get overwhelming?

MW: I try my best to not feel any pressure and to just allow myself to create the vision that inspiration breathes into my mind. I find that creating without the stress of what others will think is truly liberating and something free. Of course, I am human and fall under the pressures at times but for the most part I just let the stream of consciousness flow.

Thaddeus Coates, Illustrator

What sort of art have you been working on to support the protests?

TC: I've been working a few pieces fueled by this all, a lot of Black Queer/Trans lives pieces. I feel like it's important that when we have these ALL Black Lives Matter conversations, we are including queer and trans lives because they are all important; shedding light and fighting the good fight.

What has been your primary source of inspiration?

TC: My inspiration has been a lot of Black poetry and music, I've been listening to a lot of Maya Angelou interviews and becoming so inspired with the pose, grace, and rhythm in even how she intricately recites her poems. I've been getting such an OVERWHELMING amount of love and support. I feel seen and I feel heard. I feel like my voice matters and it feels so good.

Can the pressure to create meaningful work right now and its wide ranging impact get overwhelming?

TC: Whatever I create, it always comes from a place of compassion and understanding. I never feel pressured because I know that the message I have to share will ring true because it is authentic to my beliefs. To be needed, felt and heard, it's almost like I'm a superhero and my job is to bring light in these dark times using my voice in my artwork.

Micah Bazant, Visual Artist

What sort of art have you been working on to support the protests?

MB: As a white artist, committing to unlearning and fighting anti-Black racism is a life-long process, not just showing up in moments of crisis. A lot of folks are waking up, making art, donating, joining organizations to take action right now, which is wonderful. But that needs to be sustained. And how we do the work is just as important as what we do and when we do it. It’s crucial that my work be in service to Black leadership and organizations, and benefit them at every step of the process.

In 2015, I created a portrait of Ebony Evans, a Black Baltimore artist and activist who was protesting the police murder of Freddie Gray. She granted permission for the use of her image, and the terms on which it was shared and sold (to fundraise for Gray's memorial fund). She owns the artwork and can use it however she likes. After the murder of George Floyd, this image, as well as several others I've made over the years, were shared very widely. As a white artist I'm always receiving more attention, coin and privilege. My work isn't just trying to depict Black community - it exists because of the lives and struggles of Black people, so making the work freely available to Black liberation movements, sending posters to any protesters who contact me, making it available for free download, etc is part of my practice.

What’s been the primary source of inspiration?

MB: I'm inspired by centuries of the Black-led freedom struggle, and the way Black uprising always catalyzes all movements for social transformation. I'm inspired by the ways artists and organizers imagine new worlds beyond Black death; by the brilliance of Black women like Mariame Kaba and Tourmaline who bring together deep abolitionist practice, history, art, and practice. I'm inspired by all the Black political prisoners like Josh Williams, who's still in prison from the Ferguson uprising and needs our support right now.

On social media, I've gotten a lot of new followers, which is often overwhelming and uncomfortable to navigate. Holding the contradictions that if non-Black artists create work to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement, and it blows up and reaches a lot of people, that will also inevitably benefit us. So how do we continuously try and redirect resources and attention to Black communities in ways that don't increase harm? And try to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes and keep it moving.

Can the pressure to create meaningful work right now and its wide ranging impact get overwhelming?

MB: The grief and rage can be really overwhelming. There's also the pressure to always create more and new work, which itself is a symptom of white supremacy and capitalist values to always be "productive". Remembering that it’s "a marathon not a sprint," and having a circle of incredible friends and comrades who are also artists, writers, and organizers is crucial. I am incredibly grateful to have an informal advisory committee of brilliant radical friends who share questions and works in progress and encouragement. I know all art emerges not from genius isolated individuals, but from generations and networks of artists. Remembering that it's an honor to do this work.