In the age of Instagram, the way a restaurant looks can make a real dent on its internet presence—and accordingly, its success IRL. Hashtags on bathroom mirrors and decorative walls meant as selfie backdrops inspire a new adage: if you go to a restaurant and don’t take pictures, then did you really go to the restaurant? At a new fried chicken restaurant in DC, an attempt at memorable decor has been met with controversy, before the spot has even opened.
Set to open this week and run by Arlington, Virginia bar owner Scott Parker, Roy Boys wants to be DC’s newest late-night chill spot, with fried chicken until 5 AM, oysters, and 40s of rosé, according to Eater DC. That’ll all be served in a space decked out with neon lights, where Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album cover lines the bathroom, and the walls have paintings of hip-hop icons as chickens. Or, there were, until the community spoke out against them.
One painting shows a Biggie-esque rooster wearing a Coogi sweater and holding oysters. The other riffs on the iconic 90s VIBE magazine cover by adding chicken beaks to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight, and Tupac. They’re meant to connect the food and the hip-hop theme, Roy Boys’ managing partner Marlon Marshall told MUNCHIES; instead, they’ve prompted backlash on social media for both the restaurant and the artist Christopher Lynch. (Lynch has since deleted the paintings from his Instagram.)
Some locals don’t see the connection as a good thing. For protestors, the paintings are offensive because they play into racist depictions of Black people, and—because they went up without discussion—they disrespect the community. “There is a deep history of making our people, especially connected to chicken, look like animals because it’s dehumanizing and it’s degrading,” local chef Rachman “Rock” Harper told WUSA9. Both Parker and Lynch are white, the news station pointed out.
For Marshall, the restaurant’s managing partner, there’s an important point that critics of the chicken paintings might be missing. Parker owns the majority of Roy Boys—but Marshall, who manages much of the day-to-day and owns over 30 percent of the business, is Black.
Not including his identity in the discussion, Marshall said, ignores the fact that Roy Boys is a partially Black–owned business. “It puts the concept through a different lens if you think it’s just a white guy with a fried chicken restaurant in a historically Black city like Washington DC,” he told MUNCHIES. “I want people to look at the murals through the lens of ‘it’s a young, 28-year old Black guy who runs the restaurant, in addition to his white business partner.’”
Larry “Priest Da Nomad” Ware is a musician and rapper who, with Harper, spurred discussions of the paintings on Facebook after seeing Eater DC’s writeup. Ware knows about Marshall’s involvement, but he doesn’t think that it changes things. For decades, Ware has been part of the artist scene that revitalized the city’s U Street district. “We put in a lot of work in the community,” Ware told MUNCHIES. That’s part of his problem with Roy Boys: He doesn’t think they’ve put in the work.
For a long-time local advocate like Ware, the situation shows a lack of oversight, and disregard for the neighborhood. “I think [Marshall] should have checked in with the community,” Ware said. “There’s a backdrop of gentrification already that’s really frustrating to people who are natives in the art and the culture of the community. This spot comes up with this type of imagery, and the optics is really insensitive.”
If Roy Boys had consulted the community, they might have gotten mixed reviews. “The immediate members of my family—who are also Black—saw the artwork and said, ‘I get it, it makes sense,’” Marshall told MUNCHIES, which was echoed by other members of the Black community who saw the murals, he added. (In a statement to MUNCHIES, Lynch also wrote, “While composing the murals it was in front of many of the employees of the restaurant, predominantly black, and the gratitude and appreciation received during the process was astounding.” )
But plenty of others might feel like Ware, for whom the imagery can’t be separated from racism. “If you know anything about the history of African-Americans and chicken, especially fried chicken, you can understand the offense,” Ware told MUNCHIES.
The portrayal of Black people as animals has a long, racist history. For centuries, white communities have relied on animal-like depictions to dehumanize Black people, and display them as inferior. Fried chicken, similarly, has been a stereotype for the Black community since at least the early 1900s, when a racist silent film about the Ku Klux Klan introduced the image in a derogatory way. Representation like this negatively affects how people think of—and treat—Black people in the United States.
To critics like Ware, the fact that the paintings both animalize Black men and poke at the stereotype of Black people and fried chicken—in a fried chicken restaurant in a Black neighborhood of DC makes it even worse. Ware told MUNCHIES that this isn’t imagery he wants to see in a fried chicken restaurant, especially one where the clientele might be drunk late at night and aren’t seeing the images with context or explanation.
“Look, I don’t agree with the images, period. I don’t want to see Black men as chickens,” he told MUNCHIES. “It’s an extra slap in the face that it’s in Shaw, right down the street from Howard University.” He hopes to see a public apology from the restaurant to “let the people decide if that’s good enough for them.”
Marshall says that he didn’t expect any pushback to the paintings, but says that he also didn’t acknowledge the stereotype of Black people and fried chicken when he commissioned the artwork from Lynch. Even if Marshall didn’t mean to offend, however, he understands why people are upset.
“I’m very aware of the racial issues and the depictions of Black men—whether they be in Blackface, or as monkeys,” he told MUNCHIES. “I get the immediate reaction to the murals. [... ] I understand, now after seeing their reaction, why they’re offended.”
Roy Boys has removed the murals for now. They hope to have more paintings done with different hip-hop figures, and no more chicken features, Marshall told MUNCHIES. Still, he said, “There's no right or wrong answer, in my opinion.”
This article originally appeared on Munchies US.