Israel Hernandez: Homages to the Slain Tagger
On the second Saturday night in August, Wynwood was a blur of booze and beats. Thousands had descended upon the district for the neighborhood's monthly Art Walk. Drinks in hand, they moved en masse from one gallery to the next.
But the piece drawing the biggest buzz wasn't behind glass or even inside a showroom. It was spray-painted on the side of a building: a pink pig wearing a police sash and Tasering a skinny kid with a can of Krylon in his hand.
"Pigs gone wild," it said. "R.I.P. Reefa."
The mural is one of many to appear across South Florida since the death of local teenager Israel "Reefa" Hernandez. The 18-year-old artist and skater was tagging his name on an abandoned McDonald's in Miami Beach when cops chased him, caught him, and shot him with a Taser. Hernandez died moments later while cops were allegedly high-fiving in celebration of their catch.
The killing sparked outrage from Hernandez's friends and family as well as protests from Miami Beach residents fed up with their police department's recent record of brutality. It garnered news coverage from Los Angeles to Lima. Reefa's death has also unleashed a wave of street-side homages to Hernandez. From murals sprayed on Wynwood's walls to tags scrawled around North Shore and #RIPReefa stickers slapped around the world, the response has gone beyond mere grief. It's proof that the street-art scene Hernandez died for has now come of age.
"This is something that has never happened in Miami," says local artist GG, who painted the "Pigs gone wild" mural. "Incidents like this could either really scare artists and prevent them from going out on the streets or it could cause people to react in a positive way. And [positive] is what we're seeing."
The first homages to Hernandez appeared a few hours after New Times broke the news. By midnight Wednesday, two messages had appeared on the yellow McDonald's that Hernandez was tagging just before he died. "I'll see you around," one person wrote next to Reefa's uncompleted signature. "Rest in Paradise Israel."
During a protest the next day, hundreds of Hernandez's friends and family members wrote their goodbyes on the same building with chalk. Some even used spray paint, openly defying cops watching from across the street. Soon, the messages began bleeding into the North Shore neighborhood where Reefa died. The blood-red tag "Kopz Kill!" was scrawled in an alley. "Fuck da 5-0" appeared nearby. And a sarcastic "Taze Me Bro!" was splashed on a sign for a Walgreens.
By Friday, mainstream Miami artists were getting in the mix. GG, a well-known local painter with pieces in galleries around town, was driving home after dinner with his girlfriend when he felt the sudden urge to throw up a mural in honor of Hernandez. "We kept talking about it because it was bothering me," he says. "All of a sudden, I just said: 'Let's go to Wynwood.'" GG spotted a prime spot on NW Second Avenue at 27th Street, swung his car to the curb, and pulled his paint from the trunk. "It was risky because it was the beginning of the main street. There were people everywhere."
He painted the police pig as fast as he could, but its message is nevertheless clear. "It's amazing that cops are acting this way, pretty much abusing their power," GG says. He left the words — "Pigs gone wild" and "R.I.P. Reefa" — for last, packing up and driving away without a problem after an hour.
On the building next door, however, street artist 8bitLexicon wasn't as lucky. He used a ladder to climb on top of an overhang and painted a huge picture of Hernandez's face. But before he could finish his mural, an off-duty cop from Wood Tavern stopped him. When 8bitLexicon explained the homage to Hernandez, the cop grew angry.
"You're lucky I'm off-duty," he said, asking for the artist's I.D. "If I was on duty, you would all be in jail right now. That's not art; it's graffiti.
"I am gonna come to your house, and I'm going to spray-paint it," he said. "How would you like that?"
"It depends what you are going to paint," 8bitLexicon replied.
Then the cop wrote down his address and said, ominously: "See you around."
"We are definitely not trying to start a war with the police," 8bitLexicon explains. "That's the last thing we need... but I think this incident will spur a whole nother generation of street artists. People don't feel this is right."
Within hours, people had left flowers and candles in front of the two adjacent murals. "That was pretty emotional," GG says.
Now there are signs that the show of support will spread across South Florida and even further. A huge "REEFA" mural recently appeared near the I-95 Davie Boulevard exit in Broward. Similar tags have shown up on freight cars headed across the country. And one local art teacher has printed more than 8,000 #RIPReefa stickers.
"I had no idea that the demand, the response would be like this," says Jane Simmons, who put up several hundred dollars of her own money to print the initial batch of stickers. She has since received enough donations to send stickers as far away as Australia, Japan, Italy, Portugal, and Mexico.
"It's an organic reaction," she says. "People are angry, and they are using these stickers to show their outrage. They may be in other cities or countries and feel helpless, but putting up these stickers and art is their way of sympathizing with Israel.
"The thing I've heard the most is: 'This could have been me.'"
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