Artist Adrian Franks discusses his latest work, ‘I Can’t Breathe’


Artist Adrian Franks recently spoke with rolling out about his latest work, “I Can’t Breathe,” a tribute to to Eric Garner.

Why is protest art important?

I think activism in the arts is vital because throughout history artist were the movers of culture. When the people needed to be informed with current events, social issues, or just needed to be enlightened, artist of various types were the influencers/broadcasters of their time. Without artists to inform the masses, society as a whole could continue to suffer from certain complexities such as inferiority, ignorance, persecution, etc.

Why did his death move you to create?

Seeing Eric Garner literally die on YouTube shook me to my soul. It was probably the first time I’ve ever seen a man beg for his life before shortly losing it. You can almost view his passing as a digital hate crime being that it was labeled as a homicide by the coroner. That said, I felt moved to create a piece that would somehow put an aesthetic to a growing issue of violence amongst black men, be it from the cops, other black men, or society at large. That’s the reason why I chose the posterize-propaganda look because it instantly implies activism without saying a lot.

Just to give you some context around the piece, I choose to use the blue and yellow for a few reasons.

  • Those colors are the NYPD colors which are in their badges, shields and overall branding
  • The color blue is representative of air
  • The color yellow represents fallen soldiers (the yellow ribbons)
  • The black outline of Eric himself represents the struggles and culture from which he comes
  • The black also is the color that policemen used when training (firing silhouettes, dog dummies, etc.)
  • The image posterization is an iconic look dating back to the propaganda posters.

What should people understand about art telling a story about life?

That life is precious and that it can be taken at any given moment. Everyone on Earth has a story and those stories should be celebrated daily, and that no one has the right to silence those stories

What artist of the past inspires you with their artwork?

Charly Palmer – Because of the way he infuses beautiful narratives into his work. Palmer was one of my mentors back in college. I still talk to him frequently.

Carl Owens – I got a chance to be in this man’s presence for a few years prior to his passing. His work was like magic upon viewing in person and his technique of applying shape, form, color, line, weight and light to his work was like watching a master painter from the age of enlightenment era. He was a modern master that was well respected.

All the artists from the collective called Spiral, which included people like Romare Bearden, Calvin Douglass, Richard Meyhew, Hale Woodruff and Lois M. Jones. They became a collective in response to the March on Washington for Jobsand Freedom in 1963. Most of them took strong views on politics and incorporated those views in their work.

How has having Spike Lee share your image and recognize your importance helped the art?

Having brother Spike share my work has allowed the message of the piece that I created in response to Eric Garner’s passing to reach far beyond my social influence. For me, it’s not about me getting recognition for the artwork, but more about people connecting with an image that highlights a serious issue of violence against innocent people, specifically black men.

How has social media spread the word about this piece?

Without digital and social media, the message wouldn’t have spread so far and rapidly. The power of social media truly allows the creative process to play out in a democratic way that has never been seen before in history. It’s truly the digital version of the domino effect. It allows anyone with a voice to create tipping points that can affect massive amounts of people. It’s truly our flying car.

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