Near a parking lot off Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill South, the back wall of Coriander India Grill has bloomed into a mural memorializing those killed at the Tree of Life Congregation in 2018.
“I don’t like it to be perfect,” says the mural’s creator, Pittsburgh-based artist and anti-gun violence advocate Kyle Holbrook, of his work, which was unveiled on Wednesday. “A lot of the time, my proportions are off and I like it to have a feeling like that. I think that’s part of the soul of it.”
The mural, titled “Peace,” is one of many painted throughout Pittsburgh by Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, of which Holbrook is the executive artist.
“I’m here speaking right now, but there are more than myself that are making this happen,” Holbrook says.
Holbrook wanted the mural close to the main stretch of Murray Avenue, but still private enough for those coming to grieve, celebrate the lives of loved ones or simply remember.
“This is where people park a lot of the time when they go to the main businesses here,” he says. “It’s close to all the other murals we’ve done in this community. It’s a little bit tucked away so you have that solitude as well.”
The mural depicts The Tree of Life Congregation with the temporary memorials set up in the aftermath of the attack on the right side of the wall. On the left is a hand holding up the peace sign, and a stop sign painted orange — the color of gun violence awareness — which stands out in contrast to the otherwise entirely purple mural.
Purple, Holbrook says, is a color often used in memorials, but also keeps the mural and its message “simple and appropriate.”
In the foreground is a line of people holding hands, which represents the cooperation necessary to end gun violence.
“Everything now is being politicized,” Holbrook says. “You talk about gun violence, a lot of people don’t even listen. They say, ‘You’re trying to take the guns.’ It’s America, having some guns, it’s a right, but we don’t need machine guns for hunting. I didn’t say take away the guns, I said reduce gun violence.
“I think there should be more focus on the humans. What can I do? I’m just an artist. But it’s about bringing awareness of people much smarter than me and people of all walks of life to work together on the solutions.”
Holbrook has similar murals across 49 states and 43 countries. All share a similar message of peace, but are not necessarily related to gun violence, especially outside of the United States.
The timing of the mural’s reveal on Wednesday, June 28, was twofold, according to Holbrook. First and foremost, it comes near the end of June, which is Gun Violence Awareness Month. Additionally, the shooting’s perpetrator was found guilty of all 63 federal counts against him on Friday, June 23.
The trial, which is now in the penalty phase, has stirred up memories of the day that 11 people were killed from three congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
“I think that can be painful for how that can go,” Holbrook says.
Under the hand holding out the peace sign hangs a QR code that links to the Tree of Life Congregation’s fundraising page. Holbrook placed it there in the hope that his art can “be part of getting the message out for the rebuilding.”
The repetitious placement of hands in Holbrook’s work is a purposeful representation of his personal philosophy around gun violence.
“I’ve been painting a lot of the hands because it’s the hands and the people who are being hurt, being killed,” Holbrook says. “It’s also the hands that are shooting the guns. Obviously, gun law reform is one of the solutions, but it’s not the only solution. … Some of what we need to do as far as therapy and counseling for some of the victims and their families, but also for some of the young people or people who are perpetuating the violence.
“Hurt people hurt people. It’s a difficult and complicated issue.”