By now, you may have noticed the black tags hanging around campus. They bear three things: A single name, a birth date, and a death date. They’re the shape of a toe tag.
And they’re the work of Cedric Douglas, a well-known Boston street artist; creator of the UP Truck, a mobile art and civic engagement lab in the Uphams Corner neighborhood of Dorchester; and Emerson College’s first public artist-in-residence.
The names on the tags should sound familiar: Brown, Scott, Garner, Grant, Sterling. All unarmed black men killed by police.
“You’re supposed to be like, ‘Why is that there?’” Douglas said. “You ask questions. And then as I go, I’m going to start to ask more questions.”
He said it seems as though people have become immune to the killing of black men.
“I’m trying to figure that out too [through my art],” he said. “Why aren’t people alarmed about this and what can we do to change it?”
The tags are the first phase of Douglas’s residency, which is through Emerson’s Public Art Think Tank (PATT), a School of the Arts group of faculty with expertise in public art. Look for Douglas himself to pop up on campus next week and continue the conversation more directly.
He’ll be working with Assistant Professor Paul Turano’s public art and projections course, which is planning a festival of student work in April. And later in the month, he will be using the aesthetics of the street to engage Emerson community members and the general public.
In recent years, Douglas has gotten a lot of notice for his graffiti murals, like the one on Northeastern University’s Behrakis Health Sciences Center that depicts a child spray painting a Tyrannosaurus rex. He also uses his art to engage communities through creativity and games. Douglas uses elements like street signs, caution tape, drummers, and graffiti to get his ideas across.
“Mostly things that are kind of remixed, that are in the public space,” Douglas said. “That’s kind of the beating heart behind everything.”
Douglas came to Emerson by way of another project he did a number of years ago. He created a street memorial for his uncle, another graffiti artist who taught Douglas how to make art, and installed it outside the house in Dorchester where they grew up. Odin Lloyd, the man former Patriots linebacker Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murdering in 2013, lived across the street, and when his family saw the street memorial, they asked him to make one for Lloyd.
Gradually, the memorials began to pile up.
“The City of Boston found out that I was putting these up, and I thought I was going to get in trouble,” he said. “[But] they asked me to do a tour of these memorials in my neighborhood where I grew up, and Cher was on the tour.”
“Cher” is Cher Krause Knight, professor of art history at Emerson and chair of PATT. She was attending the 2016 Public Art Network, an annual conference organized by Americans for the Arts that was being held in Boston that year, and the tour of Douglas’s memorials was part of it.
“Honestly, it was the best thing I encountered at the whole conference,” Knight said.
Douglas came to speak at one of Knight’s classes and eventually was invited to be the College’s first public artist-in-residence.
Emerson PATT “is committed to a public art initiative that will engage, enliven, and enrich our city with temporary works of art and experiences created for the public spaces in and around the Emerson campus and beyond,” according to the group’s vision statement.
Douglas is a “natural fit” for Emerson’s public art initiative because of his work around social justice and civic engagement, Knight said.
“He’s really very involved in social practice public art,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s not about an object; it’s more about process and conversation and exchange.”
On Thursday, March 29, at the School of the Arts Assembly, Douglas spoke on a panel, “Art and Activism,” that examined ways art can advance social and political change and shift power.
He was joined on the panel by Stephen Duncombe, co-founder/director of the Center for Artistic Activism and professor of media, culture, and communications at New York University’s Gallatin School; and Elisa H. Hamilton, a multimedia artist who creates inclusive artworks that emphasize shared experiences.
Hamilton will be back on campus in April to lead a public art project and start her own conversation with Emerson and the Boston public.
“It’s been very important to [PATT] throughout that Emerson is not an island to itself,” Knight said, “that this work reaches out to the larger community.”