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Charlotte's Black Lives Matter Mural May Fade, But Its Power Endures

A steady flow of traffic rolls over South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte these days. But last summer, the traffic stopped as a group of artists filled a block of the street with kaleidoscopic letters spelling out "Black Lives Matter."

Frankie Zombie was one of the artists. He was still reeling from the news of George Floyd's death when he starting working on the mural last summer.

"The minute I stepped on the street here, just a calm spirit came over me, immediately," he said Friday near the mural. "And every last person that was in this block radius for those 48 hours that we worked felt that same spirit."

Frankie Zombie.jpg
Nick de la Canal
Artist Frankie Zombie

The mural is still on South Tryon, but it's cracked and faded, and the paint is deteriorating under the constant stream of traffic. Some letters have held up better than others. Zombie glanced down the street at one of the "E's."

"I see my buddy down there — John," he said. "His is going strong, man. I'm super jealous."

As for the letter Frankie Zombie painted?

"I did the first 'T' in 'Matter,' right here," he said, pointing down.

Last summer, he filled this letter with reds, blues, pinks and oranges, and he painted the words "Black Power" in geometric shapes along the top. But now, his design is almost completely worn away.

"It's chipped up now, but I sort of like the contrast of it," he said. "Like as an artist, it's a little weird."

But he said seeing his design fading away doesn't make him sad.

"It's more like a conversation," he said. "We came out, we say what we want to say, we get out feelings out through our art. That's really what matters. It's deeper than just the letters on the street."

"K" by Garrison Gist. (Nick de la Canal/WFAE)
Nick de la Canal
The letters in Charlotte's Black Lives Matter mural are worn and faded, nearly a year after the mural was created.

Almost from the moment that work began on June 9, 2020, it felt historic. Within days, the city closed the street to traffic, and scores of people came to view the art and document it on social media.

Abel Jackson, who designed the "C" in the word "Black," says one of the most immediate impacts the mural had was stopping many pedestrians and drivers in their tracks.

"People were just attracted to it," Jackson said. "There were people who didn't even know it was going on, driving around, seeing some commotion and coming out to check it out."

Abel Jackson.jpg
Nick de la Canal
Artist Abel Jackson

Jackson also remembers feeling an artistic release as he worked on his letter. News outlets were still broadcasting images of George Floyd's final moments, and major protests were filling the streets in Charlotte and across the country.

"Feeling that intensely about so many different things, it was just a really huge relief to be able to exercise that energy, exercise my angst in a positive way like that," Jackson said.

Frankie Zombie says he remembers his heart was heavy the morning he stepped onto Tryon Street to paint his letter.

"I got tired of seeing George Floyd on the ground screaming for his mother in his last breaths," the artist said. "I was starting to get to an angry spirit, you know? But coming out, once more, to use my voice through what I love to do every single day, towards justice and equality, nothing but peace came over me the entire day."

He thinks a lot of people needed the mural that day to take them away from the images on the news and replace them with images of artists working to create a bold, vibrant message visible from the sky.

"A" by Matthew Clayburn (Nick de la Canal/WFAE)
Nick de la Canal

The Black Lives Matter mural resonated beyond Charlotte. Local artist Aubrey Hedrick designed the mural's template. Even before the paint was dry, people from other cities were reaching out asking for the layout.

"It was one of those things — like I shared it, and then just said, send it to anyone," she said. "You know, the more the better."

Seattle and the city of Paola Alto, California, used Charlotte's template, and some of the local artists were asked to work on other Black Lives Matter murals around the region.

As the mural fades, Jackson says there's no need to freshen it up. The mural, he said, will live on in every person who visits it and remembers how they felt while standing there.

Looking over what's left of his work, Frankie Zombie said he feels the same.

"I'm perfectly fine with this mural being washed away," he said. "But 20 years from now, there will be a young Black adult (who will) walk by and say, 'I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, I helped Frankie Zombie work on his letter, and that inspired me to move into the activism that I do today.'

"That sort of legacy is what we all, I think, look for."

While the physical paint may crack and fade, he said, the image and the experience will last forever.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal