The artwork is part of a 51-mural project that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) commissioned ahead of Friday’s historic vote by the House of Representatives to make the District a state.
“As more Americans learn about and join our fight for statehood, these murals will reflect our local pride and our commitment to seeing this fight through to the end — until we are officially the 51st state,” Bowser said in a statement on Juneteenth.
On that day, artists started working on the murals. Now, those pieces of art decorate walls across the city and showcase a range of artistic style.
Some make no mention of statehood. Others give a not-so-subtle nod to it. One mural features a piece of District-shaped pie on a fork alongside the words, “DC Statehood. Delish.” Another shows a multitiered cake decorated with phrases that include “DC 51” and “Don’t Taze me Bro!!”
The mural of the man on the bike says nothing and plenty. The image is based on a photograph that was taken during a day of protests in the nation’s capital.
I learned that after I grew curious and tracked down the three men behind it: the artist who created it, the photographer who inspired it and the man who attached an upside-down flag to himself on a weekday and rode through the city.
All three men live in the Washington region and speak of deep inequities in the District that will not be solved by statehood alone. Their backgrounds also show how diverse the Black Lives Matter movement has become in the city during this pivotal moment.
The mural was painted by an Asian artist, inspired by a photograph taken by the son of Honduran immigrants and features a black man who was born and raised in the District.
“I really fell in love with that photo,” the artist, who goes by Jah One, says. He snapped a screen image of it when he first saw the photographer, who is a friend, post it on Instagram. He then decided to replicate it for the mural. “Not only did it make sense in the context of current events, but if you stare at it and put a story line to it, it becomes way deeper.”
Take the thick chain draped over the man’s body. It could be seen as symbolic in a historical sense or practical in a modern-day one. The man might need it to lock up his bike.
Jah One says he hopes the mural, and the movement, encourage more people to reflect inward.
He has seen up close the injustices and inequities that people are protesting to change. He has witnessed what it means to grow up in the city’s neglected neighborhoods.
After 15-year-old honor roll student Maurice Scott was fatally shot outside a convenience store, Jah One helped a friend, a teacher of the teenager, paint a mural of him. He says that as he painted, he could see hurt on the faces of the young man’s friends and family, but he was also struck by how many people in the neighborhood seemed desensitized to losing another person in their lives to violence.
“That was the most hurtful part,” he says, “that this was just another thing, that it was just another day.”
Conrado Muluc says he was walking with a group of protesters when he noticed the man on the bike. He can’t recall exactly what street they were on. He does remember that he didn’t have much time to capture the man alone in the frame as he rode by.
The 26-year-old father of two, who also writes his own hip-hop songs, say he has been glad to see people taking to the streets and showing outrage.
“Right now, people are starting to wake up more and realize how messed up things are,” he says. “Right now, many of us spell America with the triple K. That represents that America that was never made for us.”
Muluc’s family is originally from Honduras, but he was born and raised in Alexandria, Va. He says he only has to look at the people around him to see that people of color are hurting right now.
“People are struggling out here,” he says. “A lot of people can’t pay their bills. You got black immigrants who are facing racism, and at the same time, they don’t have their papers. They don’t get unemployment. They don’t get that $1,200 stimulus check.”
He says that the District deserves to become a state but that lawmakers too often “just want to give us little bits and pieces, crumbs.” Despite the House’s approval of legislation that would make that happen, the White House has expressed opposition to it and the Senate is unlikely to vote on it.
In a Facebook post earlier this month, Muluc wrote about what it has been like for him to document what is happening in the city.
“You can see the pain in people’s eyes more than ever right now,” he wrote. “We’re hurting, I sometimes find myself start to tear up when I’m out documenting protests. The love for my people keeps us going, seeing them march on keeps me going.”
Antarah Crawley says the day that Muluc photographed him on that bike, he was making his way between different protests. At certain points, he would ride his bike the length of the crowd to see how far it stretched.
“I enjoyed seeing masses of people advance through the streets,” the 26-year-old says. “It was really romantic.” He explains that he means that “in a French Revolution sense.”
The chain wrapped around him that day was his bike lock. But it was also holding that upside-down flag in place.
Crawley, who grew up in the District and now works as a court reporter, says he didn’t know the photograph of him existed until a friend told him about the mural.
He hadn’t yet seen it in person, but he hoped to take a picture of himself in front of it soon as a remembrance.
That’s the thing about murals. They don’t last forever.
Jah One says that even before he finished the one of Crawley, he was talking to one of the organizers of the mural project about how one day it and the other 50 would no longer be needed because the city would finally get the statehood it deserves.
It’s painful to have a mural painted over, he says, but sometimes, “that hurt is good.”
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