Below the Union Pacific railroad underpass on Seventh Street in Little Rock, just north of Interstate 630 and a couple of miles west of the state Capitol, there’s a wall covered with several civil rights peace murals. Depictions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine and Central High School are displayed alongside ethical directives like Make Art Not War, Justice Before Peace and Black Lives Matter. On Saturday, May 30, artists X3mex (also known as Ch3mex) and Eats, who asked the Arkansas Times to use their artist aliases, went to work on a mural of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered by a white cop in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Support started flooding in when they were just getting started. We talked to the artists about working on the wall:
Eats: We got out there, we started painting and people started seeing [it]. And it wasn’t anything yet. People already knew what we were doing when we were just doing the initial sketches and layers. That was the first day.
[X3mex started working on adjacent Seventh Street peace murals in 2016 in coordination with Arkansas Peace Week. The first one was vandalized the same month it was painted.]
X3mex: Some of the faces got covered up with white spray paint, so we came in the next day and fixed it. And in response to that, we painted the one next to it with the words “We Walk Together In Our Path For Justice And Peace.” A month later it got hit up again with the same white spray paint over the faces of the protesters and all the points we were making. So for that, I invited Eats to come back and paint the letters. The next one, I asked Sector to come in and he painted a character that said “Make Art Not War.” Me and him collaborated on that. That one got hit up with a swastika, and then we came back and I added a snake to the hand referencing back to the old anti-fascist posters.
[It became a pattern. The art was put up for peace, vandalized by hate, and reimagined with inspired tenacity. Each time a mural was vandalized, Eats or X3mex would get messages about it.]
X3mex: It was mostly after some protests going on downtown.
Eats: [One of them] was during a Nazi rally. It was literally that day.
[X3mex had other plans that Saturday [May 30] before they started the mural. George Floyd weighed heavily on his mind. The day before, X3mex had done a small mural of Floyd at an undisclosed location in a park. He spent the evening thinking it wasn’t enough.]
X3mex: I was planning on going to the lake or some shit, and I was like, “I can’t go to the lake, man.” I called [Eats] and was like, “Yo man, what are you doing? You trying to paint? We gotta do something. We have to go out and paint.”
Eats: We got out there that first day and started rolling our shit out. Even that first day was chill, but it got crazy.
X3mex: [There] was still a lot of tension, man. The energy was really tense.
Eats: Working on it was kind of hard, man. I had to keep looking up names. And there’s fucking hundreds and hundreds of names. So I’m like, “OK, I’ll do these little blocks and put the names in there.” But there’s still more names. And I forgot somebody. So more blocks. And that shit sucks. The names could literally stretch off the wall, onto the sidewalk, into the street, across the street and up the other side of the wall. That’s how long the list is. People that have been brutalized [by police], Mexicans, blacks, you know? It’s fucking insane. I’ve seen some of these names in the news and on the internet when the shit happened. And it sucks. But something’s telling me to keep putting the names up. I had to redo the names last night at the Capitol. We painted some buildings, and it was the same thing over and over. It sucks, but I’m memorizing these names, you know? Painting is always fun for me. But it sucks to have to paint under these crazy circumstances.
Xmex: Knowing that you’re painting that and going out there concerned [because] you don’t know what’s going to happen. Are cops going to come by and harass us or somebody or whatever? But you’re seeing everybody being OK with it, coming out and supporting it. Man, that shit feels fucking great. Seeing people of all walks of life giving the same response of support — just knowing you’re not the only one going through the same shit. You’re not the only one sitting there not knowing what the fuck to do about it. The support and the love …
Eats: Anytime we paint, it’s always love. But it resonates more because we’re putting a murdered man from Minnesota on a wall in Little Rock.
Xmex: It’s the privilege of getting to paint, and it’s a responsibility to tell the stories as well. So seeing that resonate with everybody else goes a long way.
[A woman who was going the wrong way down 7th Street saw them working on the mural and went live on social media.]
Eats: It went viral. That second day was fucking nuts.
[At times when they were painting the mural of George Floyd, traffic on the street came to a stop. People stopped to say hello, families got out and took pictures. People brought them gifts.]
Eats: Hugs, honks, bottled water, beers, pizza — a lot of pizzas. I got some baklava.
Xmex: People donated through Cash App. People pulling over giving us $20.
Eats: There’s a lot of older folks that are with the cause, but they can’t get out here and protest, there’s fucking COVID, so they want to do their part somehow. And they love the artwork so they pull up and drop $80 right there, and one couple came back and brought more money. At some point, I gotta stop taking …
Xmex: We had so much food we were giving it away to people who needed it.
Eats: And with the protest and shit, it’s crazy now. It’s a tourist attraction, which sucks, but people are unified with what we did. And they’re down there right now, I guarantee you. It’s a place where we can go rock our shit.
Xmex: Over the years you see it grow. The trajectory that it had from starting as a peace project, and going to some hate crimes, through doing it out of like “fuck that, we’re not standing for that shit,” and from that to having the backing of the community, and from that to organizing something bigger. Because that’s the key, man. Like last night [Tuesday, June 2], after we painted, I went home and was checking out the chat, you know, seeing where my friends were and if they were safe. And it was crazy, man. People didn’t know what was going on. Nothing was organized.
Eats: There were rumors that he got arrested.
Xmex: Yeah, apparently I was arrested for two days. I’ve been safe the whole time. I’ve been painting the whole time. The miscommunication is crazy. We just need to get organized.
[X3mex and Eats finished the George Floyd mural on Sunday, May 31. The following night they were at a protest painting boarded-up windows at the headquarters of the state Democratic Party, just east of the State Capitol. Some volunteers at an adjacent medical tent got in touch with X3mex about the busted windows, asking if he could come paint over the plywood.]
X3mex : It gives us a platform to paint the ideas that everybody’s feeling, the frustrations that everybody has. And then also, it’s a way to protest peacefully.
[Eats spray-painted the names of black Americans killed by police over the boarded-up windows and doors at the entrance. On both sides of the entrance, X3mex and a few others painted murals.
Not everyone was supportive, though.]
Eats: [We’d] just started painting and this dude goes, “Man, that old lady just called the police on y’all, man.” I’m like “what?” And she was in a car. The police were right there! We’re there to paint the wall. We have permission! … [Someone] might roll through there and draw a dick on it or something, which somebody did.
X3mex: Somebody did, yeah.
Eats: We left and came back and there was a cock and balls on [X3mex’s] side. It was like [with a] Sharpie. You get people driving by and creeping through. We kind of know who’s with it and who ain’t. And those are the guys you gotta watch ’cause they’ll go to Home Depot and get a can of white paint and come back and do some dumb shit. But there’s cameras all around, so if you’re a smart vandal you’re not gonna fuck with it. There’s too many people pulling up and taking pictures.
[X3mex and Eats left their posts Monday night at 10 p.m., in accordance with the curfew. The volunteers at the medical tent stayed behind and were later tear-gassed by police.]
Eats: There’s people who don’t like what we’re doing. They come through screeching their tires, driving 100 mph down the street. This day and age, you know who is not with us. People filming me, taking pictures, not introducing themselves. I had to check somebody last night. They were there for 45 minutes filming me. Finally, I’m just like, “Hey, how ya doing?” It was the opposition, clearly it was.
X3mex: It was.
Eats: She couldn’t look me in the eye. I had to put her on blast, man. I’m smart, I know who’s with our vibe. She got shook. I was like, “Who are you with?” She was like, “I’m gonna put these on my personal website.”
“Okay, so what’s your Instagram?” She looks at [the guy she was with] for the answers, but he didn’t say shit the whole time. You don’t have to fuck with us. You don’t have to infiltrate our scene. All we’re doing is painting walls. That type of mentality groups people in. People that come by [and ask] “You have a permit to do this?” I’m like, “Who are you? Show me your credentials and you can ask me what I’m doing in broad daylight. I’m painting artwork. If you want [to] Karen me or whatever.”
[Tuesday morning, June 2, when Eats and X3mex were finishing up at Democratic Party headquarters, state Sen. Joyce Elliott stopped by. They talked together about ways to benefit the local art scene.]
Eats: She’s with it. She’s cool, man. We chopped it up for a bit.
[The mural helped inspire local black educators Johnny Laine and Wendell Scales Jr. to put together a Response to Injustice Education March for teachers, students, parents and youth advocates on Friday, June 5. It was a well-organized gathering that began behind the State Capitol. Laine, Scales Jr. and local students spoke to a large (and masked) crowd. COVID-19 testing and voter registration were available, and bottled water was passed out to prevent dehydration. Teachers and students spoke, and then the crowd of hundreds marched down Seventh Street to the George Floyd mural. Students put flowers beneath the painting of Floyd. In a heart-shattering moment, the crowd sang Happy Birthday to Breonna Taylor, who would’ve turned 27 that day. (Taylor was shot to death by Louisville, Ky., officers who burst into her apartment on a no-knock warrant on little more than suspicion that a male suspect had used her apartment to receive packages.) More students spoke. Eats and X3mex spoke as well.
We talked to Johnny Laine about the mural and the march.]
Laine: It was a Monday morning [June 1] and I saw a picture that one of my colleagues had posted in front of the mural before it was completely done, and I wanted to go out there and see it for myself. So I go out there later that evening, and I stood in front of it and just stared at it for a while, and I just started to cry because I was just overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about George Floyd and his life and how he had to die. And then as an educator, it bothered me even more knowing that that mural could be a mural of one of my students or one of my former students. And with all the names that were up there, I thought about how they were kids — they were someone’s students and kids at one point. I just couldn’t stop crying, sitting in front of that mural and seeing those names and that picture. That’s when I felt like I had to do something, or I had to make sure that our kids were protected.
I really couldn’t sleep that night, and I was up on Instagram seeing all my teacher friends and colleagues who I felt probably couldn’t express themselves and protest in a way that was appropriate for them. And even thinking about the kids, I have a lot of students and parents I keep in contact with, and they don’t know what to do or say. …Some kids, and adults included, don’t know how to express themselves or don’t know how to feel about the situation, and they need help and they need guidance and they need support. So I called Wendell Scales that next morning and asked him to help me put it together. He’s someone who knows a lot of people, and from then on, it just took off after we got in contact with a couple of people.
[The march] surpassed my expectations. Everything about it was beautiful. It was very peaceful. We had so many people come out that I didn’t anticipate coming — parents, teachers, educators, and they came out in masses. There were people from all types of districts throughout the state. Even Governor Hutchinson came out for a little while and spoke with kids and teachers and everything. Even through the heat in the middle of the day, people chose to stay out there and hear everything that we had to say and our kids had to say and our parents and students had to say. The students that came and spoke, they represented themselves in a very eloquent manner that touched the teachers and parents’ hearts, and coming from that, it made me realize that there’s a need for us to continue this from an educator and parent standpoint.
X3mex: It was kind of overwhelming just seeing all the love and the city come together like that. For everybody to be marching to the mural, you know, somewhere we’ve put in so much work for years. So it was special, it enforced that our work is important, it energized our want to do more and I think it reached a lot of people. That was the main point that we were trying to make and the reason we did it all. We didn’t know it was going to be on that big of a scale, which we’re grateful for, so we want to just thank everybody that was involved in it and all the artists that have been helping us out with everything.
Eats: It was crazy, man ’cause we were at the Capitol first and then we walked down with everybody. It was just amazing to see armies of people walking down Seventh Street to that mural. A lot of them had never even been there before. There were people from all over the state. It was nuts. When I finally got down there, I just broke down crying, man. [I] hugged it out with a friend and then just watched it all unfold. The people putting flowers and signs in front of the mural — it was just really beautiful. Singing “Happy Birthday” to Breonna, it was a real touching thing, man. I’m a Cancer, I’m real emotional, but I keep it under wraps. But there I just couldn’t do it. It was too much positive energy. We’ve already been feeding off this crazy vibe since we painted the mural and then just to see it all come to fruition, I don’t even know, man. I’ve still got goosebumps thinking about it and it was the other day. It was the best feeling in the world. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen so far.
X3mex: It was really crazy hearing all the students speak. In the back of [my] head, I remember flashbacks from high school. I remember going through the same shit they’re going through, man. I’m glad they’re getting the chance to speak up on everything. The teachers are being very supportive and everybody’s coming together for this cause and it’s amazing.
[X3mex’s inbox has been filling up with requests for interviews and more work. In addition to being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, and several local outlets, they’ve been offered the chance to paint a historical mural at Dreamland Ballroom, the historic building on Ninth Street that served as a club for African-American soldiers during both world wars and later welcomed performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and Ray Charles.]
X3mex: It’s still pending for some more planning and other resources so …
Eats: It’s probably way off, but there’s going to be a lot of planning and a lot of details going into what we do and when we do it.
[As for the future, they’re hopeful, but both expressed worries.]
Eats: I’m not fixing to go crazy, but I could. I’ve been dealing with this type of shit for a while. Every day I wake up and I’m like “Am I gonna get arrested today?” I literally walk down the middle of the street just so nobody can say “You’re by my car” or “You’re near my house.” I don’t even walk on the sidewalk. I walk straight down the middle of the fucking street if I’m walking around. I have to change how I move around the city just to not look weird or have a Karen call on me. That shit’s been happening since I was a kid — “You fit the description” type shit. They’re [cops] bored. During this COVID shit, this is target practice. They’re bored as fuck. They’ve been bored for three months. “Let’s get them backed in, let’s dominate.” You know what he said. This is bigger than our shit, our city. It’s a trickle-down effect. If it comes from up above, these dudes are juiced up. That’s why they’re laughing while they’re shooting rubber bullets into crowds of children and dogs. It’s crazy, dude. I don’t even know, man. I’m up and down with the shit. I can’t go out and do direct action. I’m 42, I can’t go bust out police windows. I can’t afford to get arrested.
X3mex: After COVID, you haven’t seen a lot of friends in a long time, so it was cool seeing everybody and saying hi and knowing your friends are out there. But at the same time, seeing all the messages like “Yo man, I’m at the safe house, there’s cops coming, it’s a trap.” It’s just mad confusion and people are getting hurt. People are getting arrested and putting their lives on the line, so you gotta be worried. I am. I’m hopeful, but this has been happening. This isn’t something new. So you just hope they actually change the fucking laws, man.