Stroll down 14th Street this week, and you’ll casually encounter some world-class art. Renowned French street artist JR has transformed 1401 T Street NW into a beautiful—but temporary—3-story mural of a 1968 photo of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
The 29-year-old Parisian is known around the world for his unique style, a mixture of photography and graffiti that involves blowing up photographs and pasting them on street corners and buildings.
The mural uses Ernest Wither’s photo of the 1968 Memphis strike. The black-and-white image depicts dozens of striking workers and civil rights activists holding up signs that read “I Am a Man.”
"This says it all: ‘I am a man,’” JR told the Washington Post on Wednesday. “They created such a strong and powerful image that still resonates today, but in another context. Still, people say, ‘I am a man,’ but they care less about the color [of their skin]. It’s ‘we are humans, we are here, we want to exist.’ And I like that, I think that’s pretty powerful.”
JR and 3 assistants began work on the mural early Tuesday morning using globs of white paste and rolling out strips of the massive photo. In the past, the semi-anonymous artist has worked both legally and illegally.
This time, he stayed within legal boundaries, with the help of Lauren Gentile, who founded the 14th Street art gallery Contemporary Wing. Gentile facilitated JR’s work, with the permission of the unoccupied building’s owner, Lori Graham.
"In the right context, street art can start a dialogue about important issues; this one to me is dignity,” Gentile said. “The image is installed on a building just two doors down from the historic Post Office for African-Americans and on a street corner just below the center of the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots.”
The context has more than historical meaning, as Gentile noted: “You could even go beyond the history and see the image in its new life, now currently in the center of many major developments on 14th street with all of the hundreds of real-time labors working hard nearby. The image, in its new context, has the power to reshape public experience, but how it is reshaped can only be personally decided by its audience.”
The mural has already drawn rave reviews from local residents. Its black-and-white faces have turned heads and brought life to a normally dingy and run-down façade. Regular passersby may appreciate having a beautiful piece of art to look at, but a handful of dedicated JR followers have made pilgrimages to U Street just to see the piece.
When one fan arrived at the building on Wednesday and introduced herself to JR, the artist told her to pick up a brush and start painting, according to the Post.
"When you’re in New York, people don’t say, ‘we’re happy you came to New York.’ In DC, people thank you for coming here and bringing art here,” JR told a reporter.
JR’s art has graced streets from China and Kenya to Europe and New York City. He has even worked on the wall that separates Israel and Palestine.
JR has long called city streets “the largest art gallery in the world.” Notably, the new installation is one of only a handful JR has ever done in the United States.
Because his murals are held together with paste and subject to the wear and tear of weather, there’s no telling how long JR’s mural at 14th and T will last. It could begin peeling tomorrow or stay in pristine condition for months.
No matter how long the mural survives, it has already done its job: making passersby stop and think, and reminding them how lucky we all are to live in such a vibrant city.