What if the U.S. flag reflected the recent police killings of black Americans? At the corner of Sixth and Howard streets, it does. Instead of red for the stripes, white for the stripes and stars, and blue for the rectangular inset, this American flag uses black for the stars, black and white for the stripes and inset, and red for blood that drips from the stripes. Hundreds of drops trickle down the flag under wording and a symbol that also reflect modern times: #BLACKLIVESMATTER.
The flag fronts the outside wall of 1AM Gallery, where it has prompted scores of passers-by to walk into the art space and praise the flag's creation — though at least one person has complained. The criticism: The flag's message seemed to imply, this person said, that other lives don't matter.
“Of course, all lives matter — black lives are a part of all lives,” says Bianca Irving, class coordinator at the gallery and one of three artists who made the flag. “Being specific is focusing on a problem that everybody sees.”
The flag covers a part of a wall that 1AM rotates with new art every several weeks, so it won't be up for much longer, but artists around the Bay Area and the United States have also adopted “Black Lives Matter” into stickers, T-shirts, posters, and public paintings that reference the deaths of now-familiar names: Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The American flag has long been a subject of interpretation for American visual artists, most notably by Jasper Johns, who once said that a flag painting “is no more about a flag than it is about a brush-stroke or about a color or about the physicality of the paint.” The 1AM Gallery's flag is about much, much more than the U.S. flag. It's about the long shadow of American history and the way the current American police and justice system is treating African-Americans. 1AM specializes in art that addresses freedom of speech, with “1AM” an abbreviation for “First Amendment.”
“Black people are a part of America,” says Irving, “and the American flag is a symbol of being American. Putting blood on it speaks about the fact that there's a lot of blood being shed in America.”