Nikko Washington’s protest in paint

A man painting a mural while sitting on top of a step ladder.

The Chicago-based member and artist discusses the power of art as activism, and why he turned to painting murals to build solidarity between his city's different communities

By Britt Julious Tue, Jul 14, 2020

Making impactful, political art is nothing new for Chicago-based painter, illustrator and designer Nikko Washington. Back in 2014, after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Washington – who was in school at the time and the only Black person in many of his classes – felt compelled to address Brown’s murder. ‘Nobody else was talking about it,’ Washington recalls. ‘I was like, “If I don’t [talk about it], who will?”’

Washington’s colourful, expressive pieces feature thick, abstract brushstrokes paired with distinct Black figures. Through the noise of the world around each subject, their humanity as Black people always shines through on the canvas. ‘Blackness [has] always been the main topic of my work and art – contemporary Blackness, how that works, Blackness past the Jim Crow era, past slavery, and past certain things my parents and grandparents went through,’ says Washington. ‘It looks completely different now.’

But in the aftermath of the recent, global Black Lives Matter uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd, Washington’s ‘reactionary’ and ‘visceral’ pieces take on a new sense of urgency as he moves them from the canvas to the streets. ‘To me, instead of running from what I’m seeing, I have to let it out, and I have to use it and direct it in a way. It always comes up in my art,’ he says.

One of the unforeseen repercussions of the uprisings in Chicago was anti-Black violence from other communities of colour. Local neighbourhoods, like Pilsen, Little Village and Humboldt Park, saw a steep rise in attacks against Black citizens by the neighbourhoods’ majority Latinx population. In response, Delilah Martinez of Vault Gallerie and the artist Tubs asked Washington to join a new project, The Mural Movement. This brought together youth volunteers and Black and Brown artists from around the city to paint something for Black and Brown unity, for Black Lives Matter and solidarity in general. Featured artists included local graffiti and street-art legends such as Sentrock, Cujo, Statik and Dredske. 
A man painting a grafitti-like mural on an outdoor street wall.
A grafitti-like mural on an outdoor street wall.

‘I think it's important for us to say, we’re at a stage where anti-Blackness is not just White people and Black people. Anti-Blackness is ingrained in society as a whole. The whole 
thing has to be looked at and it has to be brought to light’

For Washington, who lives in Pilsen, the project was personal. ‘I think it was important for us to say, we’re at a stage where anti-Blackness is not just White people and Black people. Anti-Blackness is ingrained in society as a whole,’ he says. ‘The whole thing has to be looked at and it has to be brought to light.’

Washington was inspired by the protest and civil rights movements of the past, which grew, in large part, due to solidarity among the races. ‘Growing up, I loved Fred Hampton. I used to do paintings about him. I’d paint the Black Panthers and see these pictures of them and the Brown Berets together; marching, and doing talks and rallies together,’ he recalls. ‘I always thought that was important to bring back.’
A grafitti-like mural on an outdoor street wall.
One way in which Washington, along with creative partner Alicia Gutierrez, broke down barriers was to create the murals in English and Spanish. ‘I think it was important to eliminate that language barrier, because the news they [were] getting that’s directly in Spanish might have a tone that we’re not saying,’ says Washington. ‘It’s wrong, it’s negative and we have to address that as well.’

However, soon after Washington and his fellow artists created their first mural, it was ‘whited out’, or covered in white paint. The situation angered Washington, but not for long. ‘They didn’t cause us any harm. They took time out of their day to white it out, but I – we – can do another one. We can do a bigger one. We’ll do more,’ he says. 

And indeed, they did. A week later, Martinez reached out to the crew of artists to let them know what had happened. After sketching throughout the week, they came together on a Friday to paint a new, permanent mural on the far South Side at Leon’s BBQ. Washington says the group will continue creating murals and might even expand to other cities. 

Besides making new connections with artists he may not have worked with outside of these circumstances, Washington says he’s most pleased by what this new mural can do to bring their message of solidarity to the masses. ‘Our contemporary art is now accessible to the streets,’ he says. ‘It may not feel welcome in the galleries and the galleries may not welcome them in. But I think for the message to be read, and for it to really be seen by all, it’s got to be on the street. It’s got to be on the ground level. I think murals [are] the best way to do it.’
A grafitti-like mural on an outdoor street wall.
A man standing in front of a grafitti-like mural on an outdoor street wall doing the black power salute.
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