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A Black Lives Matter Painter Explains How Art Can Be Activism

Langston Allston sees his murals for Alton Sterling and other victims of police brutality as a way to "help people plug in who weren't previously plugged in."

by Sean Neumann
Jul 27 2016, 6:36am

A mural of devoted to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, painted by Langston Allston. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

In the wake of Alton Sterling's death this month, many mourned what seemed like just the latest in a series of unjustified police shootings of black men. Some people took to the streets in protest. Others reflected and grieved in private. Langston Allston started painting.

Allston, a New Orleans–based artist, has been using his artwork to address social change and stoke conversations since he studied painting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010. When he heard about Alton Sterling, Allston hitched a ride to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he picked up a paintbrush to contribute to the city's anguish and healing. There, Allston painted murals, including a portrait of a local protester called Lil' Smurf, who Allston said made an impression outside the Sterling memorial. A photograph of his artwork was later featured in the New York Times.

We spoke to Allston about his murals and why he sees painting as a viable form of protest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Part of the mural painted by Langston Allston in Baton Rouge. Photo courtesy of Langston Allston

VICE: How did the mural at Alton Sterling's memorial come about earlier this month?
Langston Allston: I've been super active in terms of including in my art how fucked up the world is. I've kind of always had a particular thing about police brutality in my work because it's something that's always been close to me. I went to Ferguson [in 2014] and that kind of made me more radical about it and interested in dismantling the police and the police system, so when I heard something happened in Baton Rouge I was like, I've got to go and see if there's a way I can be useful. I wasn't really sure what I was going to do, but we ran into some people who had paint and were willing to let me paint their wall, so I ended up doing that out of the blue. It was a very spur-of-the-moment type thing.

You painted someone who was down there protesting, right?
Yeah. I'm not from Baton Rouge, and I don't know [Alton Sterling] or his family, so I was like, it's probably better if a Baton Rouge artist does the actual portrait [of Sterling]. But we ran into a lot of protestors who were really inspiring—people from the community who came out and were just mad—so I just pinpointed a guy we were talking to earlier in the day named Lil' Smurf. Lil' Smurf was out going hard and protesting and I was like, Man, I've got to immortalize this somehow. Because it's sad how quickly this activism reacting to a sad event fades away. If there's any way to keep people visually energized and plugged in, I think that's a useful thing to do.

Image courtesy of Langston Allston

Do you see your paintings or murals as helping people in some way?
I personally don't think a mural by itself is an incredibly helpful thing. But I find as I'm talking to people that sometimes the things I paint take on a life after I've left that they didn't have when I was there. They mean things to people over time. Creating emblems and icons for people to gather around and talk about is definitely a useful thing to do, but I think there's more that has to get done. The visual element of any movement is always critical because it helps people remember it, helps people identify it, and helps people plug into it who weren't previously plugged in. But everything else has to happen in addition to that. There's definitely room for art in activism, but it's not end-all-be-all by any means.

What are you trying to accomplish with your artwork?
I really want to do work that lets people understand that the issues we're grappling with are complicated, but also understand that they're reversible and changeable. Activist art is something I've wanted to avoid, even though my art features activism, if that makes sense. I want stuff that will talk to people for a long time because these issues haven't gone away. We've been fighting this fight since slavery, basically, to get respect and to get people to stop murdering black people in cold blood. It's obviously going to be ongoing and obviously individual incidents really polarize people or pull them together. It's really important to remain active and aware of what's happening, but it's also important to understand things as being broad issues that affect everybody all the time.

Image courtesy of Langston Allston

If you don't categorize your work as activist art, what would you categorize it as?
I guess I would just call them paintings. I aspire to be active and affect change, but at the same time, I think that my paintings are just paintings.

Do you see this current movement—specifically, the Black Lives Matter movement—as something as significant as the civil rights movement?
I think I do see it as being equally significant. Really, it's a young movement; it just started. But those things we're looking back on and talking about like the civil rights movement or black power, those were things that started as young movements in times where it was necessary for them to exist. There was a gap where people really weren't polarized by it and the conversation wasn't happening on a national scale, and I think we're overdue to readdress this kind of shit because I don't think it's gotten better. In many ways, it's gotten worse.

Where I live in New Orleans, all these problems are extremely real every single day. There's no getting away from the reality of it. The law, in many ways, has lost its legitimacy—especially here in Louisiana. It's the incarceration capital of the world, so everybody down here is on papers in some way. Cops representing justice isn't really a thing. You don't see police come through New Orleans or Baton Rouge and think, Oh that person represents justice and fairness and equality. You already know they have the power to fuck up your life and probably will at some point. It's extremely necessary to start addressing that huge problem we have—especially here, because it is so fucked up. Little changes would do a lot. We just need to get a little bit of movement.

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