It started out as a message: Black Lives Matter.

Painted in 12-foot high letters under a bridge and over an existing mural, it soon morphed into something else.

The Black Lives Matter mural from the Allegheny River. Photo by Tracy Certo.

The two who started the message — Conor Clarke, a house painter and JoshuaKrajnak, a carpenter — are the first to say they are not artists, and had not received permission. It was graffiti at first. “The six people who did the letters were all house painters, not artists, just sending a message, says Clarke.

When a friend of theirs from Philly bailed on the project, they pulled in a local artist, Max Gonzales, to paint portraits on the bridge piers, of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Antwon Rose II and Ahmaud Arbery, all victims of police brutality.

They attracted attention early on — first from the police, who came and went, and then from media and others– and they were questioned about the lack of Black artists involved. On social media, there was buzz about “mural reform.”

The project was not without controversy and it was unfamiliar territory for Clarke. He was never an activist and had never done anything like this. “I’m from Philadelphia,” says Clarke who now lives on the Northside. “I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood and this is always something I’ve believed in but never spoke out directly.”

Photo by Njaimeh Njie

But the conflict ultimately led to an impressive collaboration that pulled together in record time.

“I was actually called and talked to the artists and hashed some stuff out, and had the idea of bringing Black artists in to make it more of an intentional project,” says Camerin “Camo” Nesbit, a Black artist.

Nesbit put out a call for artists and 15 arrived at the site and “added their own styles,” he says. That included Janel Young,  Jordan Collington, Destenee Guy, Juliandra Jones, Dejouir Brown, Natiqu Jailil, Cyrstal Neol Jalik and Christina Richard III.

The group of artists who created the Black Lives Matter Mural under the bridge downtown. Photo by Emmai Alaquiva.

It soon became more mural than message and while it was never sanctioned, the Mayor said to let it be, notes Clarke. Karina Ricks from the city’s Department of Mobility & Infrastructure came down, he adds, as well as Kim Beck, the artist who did the mural, Adjunctant, in 2015 that was painted over. She was all in.

In the end, there were people of all races involved, says Clarke. “It wound up being a really positive experience. I met great people, learned things, taught some things.”

The Say Their Names mural –which features 32 names on the fence, just like these –is in East Liberty in an empty lot across from Target. This, too, was unsanctioned and unquestioned so far. Photo by Tracy Certo

Turns out it wasn’t the only project Clarke and Krajnak were working on. They were behind the creation of the Say Their Names mural, above, in a vacant lot across from Target in East Liberty. That, too, was done without permission but they haven’t received any pushback, Clarke says.

The BLM message in Garfield was also created by Conor Clarke and Joshua Krajnak. They had permission from People’s Indian restaurant to paint the mural.

The duo also did painted the message above in Garfield on Penn Avenue, after receiving permission from People’s Indian Restaurant.

More public art is coming, including a project Downtown, says Nesbit. “There’s been talk about trying to get a Black Lives Matter on Liberty (Avenue, on the street itself). We’re waiting for the city to give its ok. They don’t know what they want to do, they just know they want to do it .”

On Instagram, Camo posted this about the BLM mural Downtown: “Honestly I’d just like to say thank you for ALL artists that were involved and took place in this project. We truly did something special! HISTORY IF WE MUST SAY! … this project proves how important and how POWERFUL art truly is! Creating UNITY through a paint brush, no matter the hue of paint …”