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The Wynwood Walls have been closed since mid-March.EXPAND
The Wynwood Walls have been closed since mid-March.
Photo by Phillip Pessar/Flickr

Wynwood Walls Highlights Black Artists

Earlier this summer, the Wynwood Walls participated in Blackout Tuesday, posting a black square with the caption: "We Support You. We Will Fight With You. #blackouttuesday"

But the open-air museum's attempt to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement was met with some backlash. Some commenters suggested the Wynwood Walls does not adequately showcase Black artists despite its prominence in a neighborhood surrounded by Black communities.

"[T]he neighborhood you're located and profiting from was originally a black community that got moved away so you could make your millions right?" one person wrote. "Shame on you… honestly."

Days later, the Wynwood Walls posted a letter from Jessica Goldman Srebnick, the CEO of Goldman Properties, which created the Wynwood Walls in 2009 with the hopes of transforming the neighborhood into a thriving tourist destination.

"We will explore programming, grants, partnerships, and multiple ways in which we can embrace and support the Black community in a more meaningful way and specifically show greater support to Black artists," she wrote in the post.

Reached by New Times, Srebnick called the Wynwood Walls "a platform for artists of every race and nationality" in a neighborhood that acts "as an uplifting artistic sanctuary."

She cited nine Black artists the Wynwood Walls has worked with, while also acknowledging that the museum must do better to uplift Black creatives.

"We stand in solidarity with the Black community and condemn racism in all its forms and will continue to celebrate art as an agent of change for good," Srebnick said.

New Times reached out to each of the nine artists to hear more about their experiences working with the Wynwood Walls. The three who responded — BG183, Ruben Ubiera, and Troy Simmons — said they had positive experiences with the team at Goldman. Although they spoke of supporting the movement for racial justice, two bristled at the idea of Black artists being tokenized.

"I just hope that they keep bringing the best art without discrimination," said Ubiera, a Dominican artist who lives in Miami.

Other Black artists whose work has been displayed at the Wynwood Walls include Lakwena, Retna, Daze, Phase 2, Kunle Martins, and Gregg Rivero.

Lakwena is a 34-year-old London-based artist known for combining words with kaleidoscopic color to paint murals internationally and redefine contemporary pop culture.

New York-based artists include Phase 2 and Kunle Martins.

Phase 2 is an American graffiti artist who pioneered "bubble letter" styling in the Bronx during the 1970s, later becoming a founding member of the United Graffiti Artists. He died in December 2019.

Graffiti artist Kunle F. Martins, a founding member of the IRAK graffiti crew, is a 39-year-old who currently lives and works in New York City.

On the West Coast, Retna, born Marquis Lewis, is a 41-year-old California street artist who uses visual linguistics and urban poetics in graffiti, photography, and highly detailed painted line work.

In our own backyard, Gregg Rivero is a Miami artist living in Wynwood who has specialized in printmaking for over 15 years. He also has worked as a stop-motion animation producer for major networks including MTV, Discovery Channel, and Telemundo.

BG183

Born and raised in the South Bronx during the 1960s, Sotero "BG183" Ortiz was born to two parents from Puerto Rico. Srebnick is not the first to mistake him as a Black artist — growing up, he said it was a common mix-up.

"I looked like I had a white mom and a Black father," Ortiz told New Times. "I was mistaken for a light-skin Black guy with an afro, but they knew I was Spanish when I started talking and had the accent."

Ortiz eventually became one of the founding members of the legendary Tats Cru graffiti crew, also known as The Mural Kings. In the '90s, the group worked mainly as artists for hire, producing various advertisements for clients ranging from local businesses to large corporations like Coca-Cola. The professional muralists also created memorial walls for fallen community members.

Srebnick initially reached out to Tats Cru in early 2019 to paint Goldman Properties' Houston Bowery Wall in New York City. The group painted according to the theme of "I LOVE NY" on some of the coldest days of January.

"A pretty high percentage of every artist that painted there got [painted over] by other graffiti artists. When we completed the wall, nobody touched it," Ortiz said. "It wasn't like we were the tough guys — it was the respect that we had."

Soon after, they were hired to paint one of the Wynwood Walls in December 2019 as part of the Walls' tenth-anniversary celebration. Ortiz described the experience as synonymous with being nominated for an Oscar, rubbing elbows with some of the world's greatest artistic talents.

"If you are painting for Wynwood, people around the world will respect you even more as an artist," Ortiz said.

In response to being cited as a Black artist when he is of Puerto Rican descent, he was unbothered.

"It doesn't really matter to me. I grew up with having this skin, so yes I have been mistaken many times," Ortiz said. "My father is dark skin from Puerto Rico, so hey, if they consider me Black, hey, I'll be Black. If they ask me personally, I'm Puerto Rican."

Ortiz said he would rather focus the attention on the Black Lives Matter movement than his race.

"This movement is powerful enough that if they include me for Black Lives Matter, I am 100 percent in, without a doubt. I'm not going to question why they did that because there is no reason," he said.

Ortiz most recently completed a 600-foot-long street mural in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement in lower Manhattan at Foley Square on July 3.

Ruben Ubiera

Ruben Gerardo Ubiera Gonzalez is a 44-year-old native of the Dominican Republic. Although he described himself as being an artist for all of his life, he said accepting that fate was difficult.

"Ever since I was little I have been artistically inclined," Ubiera said. "I always loved drawing and painting. My teachers, my parents, and pretty much everybody told me I was going to become an artist. I was the only one who would say that I wasn't."

Ubiera has been painting at his studio in Wynwood before the Wynwood Walls were erected. Skilled in design, calligraphy, and advertising, he worked as a creative director in South Florida for 11 years with corporate accounts. When the Wynwood Walls eventually reached out to work with him, he recalls that it was a positive experience, albeit demanding.

"The only part that was challenging was the client itself," Ubiera said. "Rightfully so, because the client wants what they want. If I remember correctly, I actually got paid extra. I was grateful and they were very happy."

In response to Srebnick's vow to do better to support Black artists, Ubiera stressed the importance of maintaining the purity of art.

"I know that we are in a period in which we are trying to focus on Black Lives Matter or the LGBT community, and yes, everybody matters," Ubiera told New Times. "When it comes to the art, you try to get the best artists. They come from all different cultures and races."

He warned that cherry-picking certain artists on the basis of their race is just another form of racism and asserts that the Wynwood Walls has made sure to do the opposite.

One of Ubiera's most recent creations is a mural on display in Wynwood of a deconstructed Statue of Liberty that is a conceptual piece about the state of American liberty in today's climate.

Troy Simmons

Texas-born Troy Simmons prides himself as a sort of renaissance man with experience ranging from environmental science to architecture to art. He moved to Miami in 2008.

Srebnick approached Simmons in 2016 through a comment on his Instagram page in response to a post he made to honor the late architect Zaha Hadid, known for her radical deconstructivist designs. She expressed that she was a fan of his work and would be interested in collaborating on a project in Miami.

"It was like a major whoa," Simmons told New Times. "Wynwood was the ultimate location for what I want to do and what I'm talking about in my work."

After visiting Simmons' studio in Wynwood, Srebnick shared the floor plan and direction for a construction project that she requested his artistic take on. An agreement was made in 2017 for Simmons to work with Goldman Properties' architectural team and contractors on the 2300 block of Wynwood, owned by Srebnick.

Set for completion by the end of this summer, the project will have concrete and glass facades with inlays of colorful parts of the sculptures currently constructed in-studio by Simmons.

"Jessica approached me while my work was in the movement of breaking down barriers and seeing past the exterior to look deeply into what a person is. I try to portray that in my work. The building in Wynwood is a larger scale of what I already do, and Jessica gave me the platform to do it," Simmons said.

Simmons acknowledged the gentrification occurring in Wynwood but believes "it's still that space where people from different communities can come together to experience something that is relatable."

Like Ubiera, Simmons believes artists should be evaluated on their talents and not the color of their skin.

"I would rather a person not know I am a Black artist because I see myself as an artist. I've been Black all my life, that's a given. If you look at me in a picture, you're going to see I'm Black," Simmons said.

Although his experience with the Wynwood Walls has been positive, he does have concern for the opportunities for the people in poorer communities surrounding Wynwood. Simmons suggested that the Wynwood Walls should consider providing guided tours for local children.

"Go to Allapattah or Little Haiti, give the kids a tour of the graffiti and art so the kids can spark in their mind and come out of what they are dealing with every day," Simmons said. "Doing more for the kids in the neighborhood, so they don't feel alienated from what's happening there before it turns into something intimidating."

Through Miami-Dade's Art in Public Spaces program, Simmons was awarded a contract and is currently working on a new project for a private jet company at Opa-locka Executive Airport set to be completed by the end of 2021.

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