If you’ve ever been to downtown Chapel Hill, you’ve probably seen the “Parade of Humanity” mural. Located on the west wall of the Carolina Coffee Shop on East Franklin Street, the mural includes an array of people, animals, objects and symbols that represent the town and the University.
But late last year, passersby saw more than just the familiar parade on that wall.
The mural had been vandalized.
“It was huge, and it said ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and it was in black spray paint scrawled across the whole thing,” said Michael Brown, the artist who painted the mural in 1997.
When he received a phone call about the graffiti, Brown's initial reaction was to just get rid of it.
“Although I very much sympathized with the sentiment, it seemed like it was marring the artwork in an excessively angry expression for the spirit of the work,” he said.
As Brown thought about the history behind the mural and the meaning people associate with it, he decided he could not take away the graffiti without keeping the spray painter’s message in the painting. So after he got rid of the graffiti, Brown painted the words “Black Lives Matter” onto the graduation gown of a man in the painting.
“I came and fixed it, but since the work is very much about audience participation over the years, it just seemed like the right thing to do,” Brown said.
“Parade of Humanity” is based on two works by Chapel Hill locals: a book, “The Southern Part of Heaven” by William Meade Prince, and a wood carving, “The Circus Parade” by Carl Boettcher that currently hangs in the George Watts Hill Alumni Center on UNC’s campus.
Brown, a Chapel Hill native and UNC-CH alumnus, said he sought feedback from the community, including UNC-CH students and faculty members, on what he should put in the mural.
“I have a little bit of a populist attitude about art,” Brown said. “I like for it to be out in the streets and to be seen and to be marginally entertaining and understandable to the average person.”
Brown has painted many of the murals throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro. In addition to references to community members and local events in the Parade mural, he also included references to widely known books, art, political figures and controversial topics.
For example, near the end of the parade, Brown painted a sink signed “R. Mutt” in reference to the Dadaist art movement of the early 20th century. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” came from the movement and was essentially just a urinal with “R. Mutt” written on the side.
“It’s sort of a comment on not just UNC and not just Chapel Hill, but on a lot of things,” Brown said.
Alexandria Agbaje, a Carrboro resident and UNC student who has helped organize Black Lives Matter protests across central North Carolina, was happy to see that the message was still on the mural even after Brown removed the graffiti.
“I’m surprised that he didn’t just repaint the mural and ignore the graffiti, but really appreciative that he incorporated it into his work,” she said.
Agbaje said she hopes people of color can look at the mural and see that the community supports them. She said the message shows that she is part of a community that cares about all of its residents.
“I know a lot of traffic comes through that area, meaning it’s a good spot to place for that message to be seen,” she said. “I was really fond of the simplicity of it, just black paint that read ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
When he updated the mural after the graffiti, Brown wanted to include some of the political movements that were on everyone’s mind at the time.
Not only did he include “Black Lives Matter” after the killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and others, but he also added “Je suis Charlie” to the mural.
“Je suis Charlie,” a slogan that has come to represent freedom of speech and the press, came about after 12 people who worked for the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, France, were killed in January by Islamic extremists. The massacre was fresh in Brown’s mind, having happened just days before he fixed the graffiti.
“I guess it seemed appropriate to do it here since it’s a big cartoon and it was the cartoonists who were attacked,” Brown said.
Brown placed the words “Je suis Charlie” on the boy with the #22 T-shirt, a shirt that Brown said represented the famous UNC-CH football player Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.
Freedom of expression
One of the most important messages in “Parade of Humanity,” Brown said, is the importance of freedom of expression – not just having the freedom of expression, but actually using it.
“It’s sort of what makes life worth living to have some variety and some choice and to make your own choices,” Brown said. “So yeah, as far as it goes, I’m an activist, but more an activist for reaching out, taking risks and being a little less conformist.”
Though the mural continues to age, Brown wants it to always be a representation of life in Chapel Hill.
“De Te Fabula (which translates in Latin to): This is a story about you,” Brown said, describing one of the many flags shown in the painting. “And it is. It’s a story about everybody that walks by.”
Stephanie Zimmerman is a UNC senior journalism major from Greenville, N.C., and co-editor of the Carrboro Commons.
About the Carrboro Commons
The Carrboro Commons is a twice-monthly Web-based newspaper created by professor Jock Lauterer’s Community Journalism class at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Read the CC at carrborocommons.org/