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The Vanishing Murals of Bed-Stuy

The Vanishing Murals of Bed-Stuy
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. The murals of Bed-Stuy are posthumous portraits of the neighborhood’s dead, mostly young black men killed in the 1990s. The contemporary dead receive them occasionally, but the majority of these murals, known as urban gravestones, are old, some over twenty-five years old. The first gravestone I ever saw still exists on Marcus Garvey and Greene. It reads: “In Memory of Larry Lotupp.”
PRIVATE 38 – Stories from the USA
PRIVATE 38 – Stories from the USA

What follows is a short photographic essay about the “gravestone murals” in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. These murals live (and die) through the beneficence of the owners of the buildings they are painted on. Because these murals are not sanctioned public art, they have no protections.  The thrill of coming across one is tempered by encountering a blank wall where a loved mural has been erased.   Once erased, their finality is death-like; once gone, we cannot get these murals back. As the murals disappear, what are we losing?  And what do they mean if there is no one alive who remembers the dead the murals celebrate? These murals are loved and respected by the citizenry, however, so much so that there are thousands of photographs of them posted on the Web. Still, there is nothing like an urban gravestone in situ, a commemoration most likely, one imagines, painted near where the dead person lived or hung out. Once the murals are reduced to photographs alone, their power has been halved, if not totally neutered.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. The weathered panel to the left of the one above shows Larry standing before his SUV with the Brooklyn Bridge as backdrop. I went home and Googled his name but no hits; he must have died before the Internet. But Larry will endure here for as long as the building’s facade remains untouched.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. This beautiful, historical image of Yusef Hawkins ringed by white dogwoods is being impinged upon and it is only a matter of time before his face and wreath are completely painted over. A horrible blank feeling descends when a loved mural vanishes.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. It is up to the discretion of the building’s owners to determine how long the murals exist. Here is a young father, Corey, killed in 1994. He was proud of his car and his city. He left children behind. “Sunrise: 5.12.70 – Sunset: 3.19.94”
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. Here is a mural for a young scholar, Jessie Timothy Davis Jr., also killed in 1994. He was loved deeply by both sides of his family.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. This woman, whose name can’t be read any more, died in 1993. These murals are an offshoot of the ancient practice of funerary art: think of Roman funerary portraits. Now think of porcelain photographs seen embedded in, or portrait engravings etched onto, gravestones. Think also of the genre of 19th-century posthumous portraiture. Even without a name, this woman now has existed for us who did not know her when she existed.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2018. Here is Dawn S. Tolbert or, as she was known to friends, Dawn, Auntie, Diva, Sister Mac, D-Stone, D-Dub, D-Rock or D-Mecca. She recently got her own “Way” on Marcus Garvey. As in nearly all NYC neighborhoods, impromptu assemblages of candles and flowers appear outside of apartment buildings and bodegas when someone dies. Here Dawn enjoys both honors simultaneously. The murals endure longer than the candles and flowers, but how long are these murals intended to last? Are their ends, like ours, built in?
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. One of the most moving murals in all of Bed-Stuy was a complex weathered one at the corner of Lewis and Halsey. The mural depicted at least 33 disembodied heads of people who had died in the neighborhood: a soldier, a little girl, a bus driver, a man in a fedora, a woman with a Grace Jones haircut. One woman told me, “There are a few people left who could have named all the people on that wall.” Another woman told me she had paid to have her husband’s portrait painted on the wall after he had been murdered.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. The deathless cry of the mural’s occasion. Its decree is called: “Faces on the Wall.”
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. What was stunning about this mural, besides the crowd of disembodied heads, was the elaborate sylvan scene painted below them, as if from a Renaissance Judgment Day painting. There was a giant Tree of Life sheltering tombstones with birth and death dates and the names of the dead. The name of whoever paid for the deceased’s inclusion on the wall was also noted sometimes on the gravestone itself: “Love Sarge,” “Love Karen.” A silver river flowed through the scene evoking the rivers of Paradise or the River Styx.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2018. I noticed the mural’s absence the other night while in a restaurant across the street. Was I hallucinating? It was not there. I kept trying to make sense of the blank brick wall. Did they roll the bricks up at night with the mural on them, like a storefront gate? That was my surrealist hope. A week later I went by in daylight and saw the truth. The mural had been completely sandblasted off. It is forever gone. The word is that current, longtime owners are selling the building and thought the mural made the building less desirable.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – 2015. This child’s face has now been totally erased from the world. I believe her name was Janelle Lynn McCleese, born in 1987 and died in 1990. How did she die? I have imagined that she was hit by a car. The mural lived much longer than she did. Perhaps brevity really is part of the beauty and function of these murals—that their eventual loss further reflects the neighborhood’s demographic changes, the passage of time, the brevity of life. I won’t ever forget Janelle’s face and her lovingly fixed hair. She lives inside all of us who passed by and took notice of her as we walked down Lewis Ave.,–us, the lucky living, wondrously and briefly animated by life.
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Regan Good

[b.1967] Regan Good is a poet and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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