Sacramento, CA

All Canvases are Beautiful: An Anonymous Art Installation is Sending a Message

Olivia Monahan

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One of the few doors still left standing in SacramentoAndres Alvarez/Sacramento

At first, there was just one. A painted door that appeared from nowhere bolted to a parking sign in front of Mike's Camera in Midtown Sacramento the day of the Derek Chauvin murder trial verdict. Varied shades of stenciled block lettering reading "A guilty verdict is not a sign that the system is working... it is a sign that solidarity is" on one side and "My daddy changed the world" on the other. In ghost lettering, acting as the background to the statement, was the name George Floyd, over and over again.

The location for many, including the anonymous artist who installed the sign, held a lingering pain. It was at this very same location that the Sacramento Police Department shot projectiles at point-blank range relentlessly into a crowd of protesters who were kneeling in solidarity during the George Floyd protests of 2020. A night that many activists in Sacramento would never forget and a story that many residents of Sacramento had never heard.

"I had to figure out a way to be able to still scream from the same corners we had been on all year. A way to keep the message in the back of people's minds and in the front of their eyeballs -- but in a way that prevented me or someone who helped install the signs from getting attacked, whether by Proud Boys or police officers," says the artist, whom for safety purposes will be referred to in this story as Clay Slab.

But it appeared not everyone welcomed Slab's form of peaceful protest.

"It only took a few weeks for the door to be torn down. But for every door that comes down, two more go up. That was the promise I made myself. That's how the project came together in the way that it did. They [Sac PD/Proud Boys] tried to silence us so many times last year. I wasn't going to let that happen again."

Slab began collecting doors donated by random community members all across Sacramento. Everywhere, from Elk Grove to Citrus Heights to Oak Park, community members donated supplies until there were 33 ready and available to paint. That's when the larger guerilla installation came in.

Installed across the city in broad daylight, each of the 33 pieces proclaimed a different message. From doors honoring the many lives lost at the hands of police officers, honoring non-profit organizations and activist groups in Sacramento who had been doing community work throughout 2020, and doors set up specifically as community bulletin boards encouraging others to get involved. Whatever needed to be said, Slab was ready to say it.

And they are not alone.

This kind of project is only one of many guerilla art installations that have popped up across the city, state, country, and world amid nearly two years of political turmoil and strife. So why guerilla art, and why now?

THE STAYING POWER OF THE GUERILLA ARTIST

Guerilla art. Street art. Graffiti. Vandalism. Depending on who you ask, what they believe, and what version of art they consider valid, this form of artistic expression will get viscerally different reactions from different people. Yet whatever title you give it, and whatever your viewpoint is, one thing is undeniable.

This kind of art is about power. Not the type of power that asserts itself or forces itself upon you. It is the kind of art that confronts you. With a thought. A theory. A moment. A painful truth. It creates the space for both artist and onlooker to have a conversation without ever seeing each other, without ever having to speak. Somehow in the silence, the message is loud and clear.

It was 1967 when Darryl 'Cornbread' McCrary was first cited as bringing an "elevated form" of graffiti to the world. Where many had relegated the idea of graffiti and tagging into something only done by rival gangs in neighboring territories, Cornbread was a young high schooler with a crush in Philadelphia. The student/artist made a long-lasting impression with his 'Cornbread Loves Cynthia' love letters written on the desk of every class Cynthia had, the block she lived on, and the bus route she took on the way to school.

While the crush didn't last (Cynthia eventually moved away), Cornbread's desire to spread his name across the city became everlasting. 'Cornbread' began showing up across Philadelphia, becoming a part of the cityscape and eventually the cultural lexicon. From tagging the Jackson 5 plane while they were touring in Philadelphia to painting each side of an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo, all the way to Cornbread and company staging fake crimes so the artist could tag the vehicles of the first responders who arrived on the scene. His name became a legend.

With imitation often called the sincerest form of flattery, Cornbread sparked the minds of many. The art sensation swept further east, landing in New York City. It didn't take long for subways to explode with color as different artists began leaving their mark on the inside and outside of the cars. Evolving from the simple black marker method Cornbread utilized, artists began creating wall-to-floor murals of color and life sprayed from the tips of spray paint cans. Soon graffiti could be seen everywhere you looked.

By the time the 80s hit, it had evolved further into political statements. The kind of messages that subverted the system by leaving both subliminal and overt messages across the country. With the combined impact of the War on Drugs, redlining, gentrification, and Reaganomics wreaking havoc through the entire United States, graffiti began to take on the heavy responsibility of acting as the artistic conduit for the collective pain of the affected communities.

Jump ahead forty years to the present. The world was deep amid a global pandemic. The political unrest caused by the violent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane was causing uprisings around the world. This seemingly perfect storm inspired a new crop of guerilla artists who began translating the world's pain into paint yet again. Their art was creating the conversations that everyone needed to have.

Here in Sacramento, however, it appears certain people do not want the conversation to continue.

WHAT GOES UP (APPARENTLY) MUST COME DOWN.

On July 31st, the "Knock Knock" installation went up in Sacramento, each door acting as both a message and a metaphor.

"Doors symbolize a dichotomy. They are both opportunities and barriers that will either open themselves up to us or slam in our faces," says the artist.

In the case of art mimicking life (mimicking art?), the project has had its share of barriers. As of now, less than three weeks after the 33 doors went up, there are only a few left standing. Bystanders have sent eyewitness testimony along with video footage indicating that a team of men driving a newer model white pick-up truck was witnessed around Sacramento, ripping the doors from their proverbial hinges and throwing them into the bed of the vehicle as they sped off. Experienced enough to know to protect their identities, the removers of the art cover their license plate, and sometimes their faces, to avoid detection.

"The amount of aggression it takes to take those doors down by hand is a high level of anger. One of the women who sent her eyewitness account to me said that as she watched these men rip them down, it felt 'tantamount to a hate crime' because of the amount of rage they put into its removal. She planned on going around and warning her neighbors about the truck. To make sure they were all aware of what was happening in their front yards."

Despite the setback, Slab is hopeful about the future of the project.

"I don't think they realize what they inadvertently did. These thieves gave me more reasons to paint and even more reasons to process my trauma while I create. Furthermore, the doors coming down caused more people to step up and help. To try their hand at painting their own doors or volunteering to assist on the next installation. It ended up creating community, and I'm so grateful for that. It actually gives me so much hope."

While there is no concrete evidence to indicate who is taking down the doors, the artist has posited their theory.

"We saw a lot of white trucks with taped license plates during the George Floyd protests. More often than not, we found out that they belonged to Proud Boys. The tactics here feel too similar for me to think otherwise."

Regardless, "the angry responses of these random few are as much a part of the message of the art," Slab contends. They also refuse to let this visceral, almost violent reaction to their work sully their resolve.

"To those who are taking it down... I'm glad that the art invoked that much emotion in you. That's what art is supposed to do. But your lack of creativity, your unwillingness to hear the message, is showing in your actions. These messages are seeds we are planting. Seeds that oppressors, such as yourselves, think you will somehow prevent from growing. Now the goal is to have three go up for everyone that comes down. Good luck finding them all."

With the pieces mostly torn down, you can view each installation in the project and keep up to date on the new art that is soon to come by following @acabco on Instagram.

You can find out more about the project while simultaneously supporting the project by donating to their Patreon each month, the proceeds of which go to art supplies and expanding the project further.

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Olivia Monahan is a Sacramento based Chicana journalist and editor whose work critically examines the dynamics of art, culture and politics with a focus on active participation over passive observation. As both a writer and editor, she values and activates instances of connection in the content and presents readers with equal parts truth and reflection.

Sacramento, CA
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