Brian Chilson

Every year during Arkansas Peace Week in late September, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice asks a local artist to beautify the stretch under the train bridge on 7th Street, just east of White Water Tavern. Those murals began going up along the bridge underpass’ northern wall on 2015, each depicting images of diversity and inclusivity. One mural bore the words “Teach Peace.” Another says, “We Walk Together In Our Path For Justice & Peace.” In 2016, Jose (whose last name has been omitted here by his request) painted a vibrant tableau of a rally — people holding signs for justice and equality. In 2018, that mural was completely sprayed over with white paint.

“I drive down here often,” Jose said, “but someone had told me each time when it’s [the mural] been defaced. So, we come out here and try and fix it.” By “fix it,” Jose means that he and anyone he could recruit to help have spent hours or days — depending on the extent of the damage — covering up the offense, repainting the original mural and, often, expanding the artwork. Jose’s goal? To show the defacers that when you destroy a piece of art bestowed on the community as a whole, there are people devoted enough to rebuild it.

After the 2016 incident, Jose posted pictures of the defaced mural on his Instagram account, and a group of donors emerged with funds for paint and labor to restore it. “I just posted it up and people made a point to donate and help,” Jose said. “I never ask for money or anything like that. The community definitely helps itself and it’s good to know that they are supporting that.” The second time it was defaced, he was back at it again.

Advertisement

Painting a mural is no easy task. I watched Jose — with Jermaine and Matthew (last names also omitted by request) — spend over two days on ladders with rollers and spray paint, creating a depiction of Martin Luther King Jr., a character holding a dead snake and colorful rainbow dots and designs stretching along the bridge’s underbelly. There’s no doubt about their skill and creativity, but the mural is more than a portfolio piece. It’s a political statement.

“The message is about peace and for someone to deface that, it becomes no longer about my work. I mean, it’s my artwork but when it’s done, it’s given to the community. Especially for this area. As artists, it’s our responsibility to use our platform to express these ideas,” Jose said. By “these ideas” he means the word “Peace,” which now appears to the left Jose’s 2016 restoration, the “Respect Existance or Expect Rezistance” that had been defaced the second time with backward swastikas, and the “No Mercy For Fascists” slogan, painted in direct response to the defacer. When someone covers up these messages, they cover up the voices of the people who created them. Jose refuses to allow that to happen.


Jose’s passion for the message — and for the often-neglected areas of his home city — is clear. The process of repainting a political message, though, feels more like a performance piece. Someone expresses peace through art; someone destroys it. The people contribute by spreading the word, raising funds and even chipping in time to helping paint. As a result, the artist’s message reaches more and more people. Someone destroys the message and the cycle repeats again, each time expanding the reach of Jose’s artistic ethos. The act of painting the mural has itself become a form of protest.

As for Jose, he said, “I want to thank the community for always being supportive and being behind us. You’ve got to take action. You can’t just sit behind a screen. We’re out here. It would be great if more organizations around Little Rock would give more support and programs around town for the local artists.”

If you live in Little Rock, drive by and see the mural in person on 7th Street under the train bridge, between Dennison and Woodrow Streets.