“I almost didn’t even have time to be upset about it being vandalized because the community response was so immediate and positive,” said muralist Isiah Lattimore.
LANSING, MI — The Lansing community was outraged earlier this month when a vandalist defaced a public mural commemorating the life of George Floyd. But Lansing citizen Marissa Thaler, alongside organizers from the Lansing Art Gallery, channeled the community’s indignation into a GoFundMe campaign to restore the mural that exceeded its initial goal by over 300%.
Flint-based artist Isiah Lattimore is the creative force behind the mural, but he didn’t originally lend his talents to Lansing’s ARTpath — the Lansing Art Gallery’s public art exhibition on the Lansing River Trail — with the intention of creating a tribute to George Floyd, the 46-year-old Minneapolis man whose death in police custody inspired uprisings and protests against racial injustice and police brutality across the nation.
“I came down to Lansing to do a different mural,” Lattimore said, “and then while I was painting, the incident with George Floyd happened, the protests started happening in Lansing. So I contacted Katrina Daniels at the gallery, who was orchestrating ARTpath, and I asked her if there was any way that I could do another mural of George Floyd.
“We were pretty fortunate that between the gallery and the city, we were able to put together a space for the George Floyd mural pretty quickly.”
The inspiration behind the design of the mural itself hearkened back to what Lattimore called a “good example” of community, empathy, and collaboration from his own hometown.
“The original inspiration that made me want to do the mural was some of the protests that we had here in Flint,” Lattimore said. “Our sheriff came out, he met with protesters. He didn’t have riot gear on. He just asked them, like, ‘What do you want from us? We’re here to help. We believe you guys have a voice to do this. We think what happened to George Floyd was wrong. What can we do?’ That was the sheriff talking.
“One of the leaders of the protest said, ‘Okay, well, come walk with us.’ And then the sheriff’s response was, ‘Okay, let’s walk.’ So that was the title of the mural.
“ … I thought my city really stepped up. I thought it was a good example of how we as a nation could look at the whole issue of police brutality and then even systemic racism as a collaboration between everybody, and how we could come together to solve this problem.”
But one bad actor responded to the call for unity with an act of desecration.
“There’s no way I could not have found out,” Lattimore said about the vandalism, which showed up about three weeks after the mural was completed. “I had like, 50 people message me that day about it. Initially, I obviously wasn’t excited that it got vandalized, but I wasn’t very surprised.
“I think one of the great things about public art is that you get to have that conversation. Sometimes that conversation can go bad. I think what’s important to remember is that the artwork itself is secondary to the dialogue that the community has.”
The community response to the vandalism, Lattimore said, is where that dialogue continued — and flourished.
Lansing Gives 100% … and Then Some
Lansing resident Marissa Thaler said she knew she wanted to help support that dialogue when she heard the news of the vandalism. She’s a freelance illustrator herself, as well as mother to two engaged little Lansingites who’ve marched with their family in “quite a few” protests over the years, including recent Black Lives Matter protests in the city.
“I think … really healthy public art … is pretty indicative of how a city takes care of the people that live there,” Thaler said. “Murals and street art in general I think are huge ways to improve the morale of the city and invest in the residents. But then this specific mural, to be so public on the River Trail and to come at such a timely moment, I think it really spoke to, you know, ‘We are investing in this, this is important.’ … I think what it did was really speak to what the values of Lansing are or what we strive for them to be.”
Thaler told The ’Gander she had had the chance to connect with Lattimore previously through her YouTube series, HELLO ARTISTS, where she interviewed him about the George Floyd mural and his creative career in general.
So when the vandalism happened, she said, she reached out to Lattimore again and asked whether anybody had yet set up a GoFundMe, and what she could do to help.
“He’s very chill,” she said. “He had already known about it. The Lansing Art Gallery was … so on top of things, and they had already been in contact with him and were putting together plans for a fundraiser in the next couple of days.”
But Thaler said she knew Lansingites wanted to act in support of the mural and its message immediately, and she wanted to help take advantage of that critical moment between the act of vandalism and the launch of the Lansing Art Gallery’s fundraiser. So she set up a GoFundMe for donations toward the mural’s restoration that day.
“I wanted to fill in the gap,” she said. “Like, okay, you’re super angry in this moment. Here’s your chance to give. You don’t have to check back on it. You don’t have to wait for a few hours before the other fundraiser picks up.
“When I woke up in the morning, it was already past the $1,000 goal,” Thaler said. “My thought was, ‘Oh, well, I’ll take it down now. But then I thought, ‘You know, let’s leave it up for just 24 hours. It’s getting some traction and, I mean, I knew the money wasn’t going to go to waste even if we surpassed the goal, which I was right about.”
“Surpassed” may be a bit of an understatement: With an initial goal of $1,000, Thaler’s GoFundMe raised $3,370 in 24 hours for the restoration of Lansing’s George Floyd mural.
Where did all that money come from? “There were some larger donations, a hundred dollars here and there,” Thaler said. But many of the donations were small, coming from everyday Michiganders moved to action.
“There were a lot of like, five, ten dollar donations coming in, just basically off of Facebook,” Thaler said. “I posted it to my wall and then it got shared a couple of times, and then I also posted it to a couple of community boards … a couple of different community sites as well.”
And Thaler said Lattimore and the Lansing Art Gallery have “amazing plans” for all that cash from the community.
The Conversation Continues
“My goal now is to try to make this as positive of an ending as I can,” Lattimore told The ’Gander. “We’re going to come down again. We got the okay to make it a little bit bigger this time and use some of the other space that we weren’t sure if we had before. And I’m also going to bring another artist out just to try to help us make the George Floyd mural better than the first time. And then in addition to that, the gallery is also setting up a few more projects with the remaining funds that we raised.”
Ultimately, the vandalism became an opportunity for the Lansing community to rally and open up a greater dialogue around Lattimore’s work, and it culminated in thousands of extra dollars going toward other public art projects in the city. But the artist himself said the most important thing to recognize is the moment itself, and the man whose life and death the mural honors.
“I think that what people are really connected to isn’t as much my painting as it is the moment that we were here,” Lattimore said. “So I love that art can play a part in that. I love that art is one of the platforms through which that dialogue can happen. But I really think what was more important in this instance was the connection, the feeling everyone actually had about George Floyd. And then in regards to the response, it’s really the connection people had to not let that vandalism be the end of the story.
“In my mind, it’s the best answer we can give to things we can’t stop, like hate. We can’t stop people expressing feelings of racism, but we can control our response to it. So I think the positive reaction that the mural got in the first place — or even if you look at our sheriff and the protest that happened [in Flint], that response was about the best thing you can get. So we can’t stop someone from vandalizing it, but I do think that the response people gave to it, to not let it destroy the moment, to not let it be the end of that story — that’s about the best answer we can give.”