Walls for Justice founder Samuel Rodriguez outside Philly Runner

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When Philadelphia native Samuel Rodriguez saw all the boarded up businesses after the destruction that followed the first days of protests in the city, he had an inspiration. To shift the energy from one of fear to one of welcome, he began painting the crude pieces of plywood with messages of hope.

Dubbed Walls for Justice, the initiative took off quickly, with more than a hundred volunteers pitching in. A sister project is launching Utah, and Rodriguez is raising money to create a lasting nonprofit.

“Walls for Justice is an opportunity to work with businesses and have them be a larger part of sending messages for peace,” said Rodriguez, 29, a teaching artist by trade. “We’re now thinking: What happens when the panels come down?”

All the artwork and murals are done free of charge. Over the past two weeks, Rodriguez and co. have painted 10 separate pieces of artwork on more than six boarded-up storefronts, including Benjamin Lovell Shoes, a 7-11, Guaricela’s Shoe Repair and Philly Runner in Center City — one of the shops whose empty shelves after looting were widely broadcast on social media.

Philly Runner owner Ross Martinson said the company wanted to help shift the narrative set by nights of rebellion to one of positive change.

“There absolutely is a call for justice,” Martinson told Billy Penn. “Initially my thought was, ‘This is not how to get [justice], the looting and rioting, but it certainly sent a strong message. I think Walls for Justice is calling attention to that and helping to turn that into a positive.”

Part of Rodriguez’s M.O. is to work with each business owner on a custom message that suits their brand and vision. The Philadelphia Runner team gave him a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that aligns with the store’s mission and the current climate.

“If you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run, walk, if you can’t walk, crawl,” Martinson recited. “They took it and did a phenomenal job.”

Some businesses have started commissioning Walls for Justice to decorate their permanent facades.

“We just confirmed our first official storefront that’s not boarded up,” Rodriguez said. The team this week painted straight on the glass and metal door of North Broad’s Beyond the Seams.

“They called us,” Rodriguez said of the embroidery shop, “because they put up the boards when they panicked [because chaos was nearby]. Now they want to make a better show.”

The eventual success of the project came after a lot of rejection. Rodriguez spent the first days visiting businesses door-to-door with a 30-second elevator pitch, and getting a lot of “nos.” Owners at the Chestnut Street storefront that used to house Fabio’s Menswear were the first to answer, “Yes!” Rodriguez said — and at first he wasn’t sure how to react.

Thanks to encouragement from friend and artist Alexandra Kralick, whom he now calls his second in command, he pulled out paints and started working on the spot. Things blossomed from there.

One sunny mural outside Dollar Plus reads “Daddy changed the world,” a message to 6-year-old Gianna Floyd, whose father George Floyd’s police murder triggered nationwide protest and unrest. At Benjamin Lovell, muralists painted flowers to frame a famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“With Walls for Justice, what I’m seeing with my own very eyes is that art is the change agent,” Rodriguez said. “We’re in the movement, but with a paintbrush.”

Walls for Justice originally planned to take the boards and use them in a later gallery installation, but they’re such a hit, many store owners want to keep them.

Every artist who works with Walls isn’t a professional, Rodriguez said, which he loves — “You can see the hands of a kid, you can see the hands of someone who just picked up a paintbrush” — but he is.

Rodriguez works as a teaching artist for Artrepreneurs, a business and art program that focuses on community activism. When he was 17, the Feltonville native joined Philly’s Mural Arts program and has been on staff at the organization for 10 years. Walls, though, isn’t associated with Mural Arts. People told him he was talented growing up, but he “used to dismiss it,” he said.

“Now reflecting on that, I kind of feel fulfilled,” he said. “I had no clue that I was going to be empowering the Black Lives Matter movement. My teaching artistry and all the projects I did before was all in preparation for this one moment.”

In order to fund the cost of supplies and legal filings to form the official nonprofit, Rodriguez is raising money on GoFundMe. As of Friday morning, the fundraiser had brought in just over $3,500 of an $8,000 goal.

“Murals ain’t cheap,” Rodriguez said, adding he’s worked with organizations who make million-dollar murals.

“The fact that we could do this with a limited budget is amazing. When we have the funding we need, we can make incredible art.”

[youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ope6jQiMac” caption=”Video%20by%20by%20Luke%20Bernardi” /]

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...