Maybe you haven’t heard of local artist Oree Originol by name, but you’ve probably seen some of his work without realizing it. If you've walked in the Mission lately, you might've noticed stark black and white illustrated posters of a young man named Alex Nieto wheat pasted around the neighborhood. The poster states, "Justice for Alex Nieto" above the man's portrait and "Brown Lives Matter" at the bottom of it. This iconic image was designed by Originol. 

L.A. born-and-bred and currently Oakland-based, Originol moved to the Bay in 2009 and has been showing his work in galleries, as well as on Berkeley utility boxes. His works are also widely reproduced and shared online, at public rallies and protests, and, as in the case of those images seen in the Mission, as wheat pasted posters. I talked to the artist about the inception of this poster, just one in a series called  “Our Lives Matter,” as well as his creative inspiration, and the overlap of art and social justice.

Tell us about your "Our Lives Matter" series.

The “Our Lives Matter” campaign is a series of screen-printed portraits of people who have been unjustly murdered and whose murderers have received impunity for their crimes.

The project started after I attended a New Year’s Day memorial gathering for Oscar Grant, who was filmed being shot to death at the Fruitvale BART station by an officer who ultimately only served 11 months in jail. I decided to design Grant’s portrait and post it online using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, which has been popular since the George Zimmerman trial. Since that first portrait, I’ve flipped the term to #brownlivesmatter to address racial violence against brown people.

I now work to address the larger issue beyond just race and to include violence against other marginalized groups including immigrants, womyn, and LGBTQ. I chose "Our Lives Matter" as the overall title of this project to cover all the different groups of people who face oppression and violence.

Who are some of the other portraits?

One design is of Alex Nieto, who was killed by the San Francisco Police Department on Bernal Hill while on his way to work because his holstered Taser was mistaken for a gun by a jogger.

The latest design I have released is of Renisha McBride, who was mistaken for a burglar and shot and killed in a Michigan town while she was seeking help after surviving a nearby car crash.

Where have you been displaying your "Our Lives Matter" posters? Why did you choose these spaces?

Up to this point, I have only been sharing my posters online. However, I chose to create a consistent black and white design so that they could be easily reproduced and cost efficient whenever someone decides to share it beyond the social media platform.

Ideally, the posters would be displayed at protests and rallies, posted on the streets, and shown in classrooms and galleries. So far, there have been several community organizers in San Francisco who have made prints of the Alex Nieto design and wheat-pasted them around the Mission and surrounding neighborhoods. That same design was also made into shirts that were sold to raise funds for the Nieto family.

This work is meant to be displayed anywhere it can ignite a conversation, teach a lesson, and inspire others to take a stand against the issues like police brutality and gentrification. 

What has the response so far been to the Our Lives Matter campaign?

Since this campaign has been based online, much of the response has been people sharing my images on social media. The “Justice for Alex Nieto” design has been the only one to date that the local community decided to print and wheat paste all around The Mission.

At the beginning, I didn't have any idea of how far I wanted to take these designs. My intent was to share them online to see how they would help push the conversation of racism, police brutality, and terrorism in America.

Along with continuing to share these portraits, I’ve held screen printing workshops with students in San Francisco, teaching the process of printing and leading conversation about the topics relating to "Our Lives Matter." I have plans of doing more street art like murals and wheat pasting large posters of the "Our Lives Matter" series in different cities around the country. I’d also like to continue to use these designs to engage students in the classroom.

What do you hope to accomplish through this project?

First and foremost, this artwork is meant to empower the movement and to shift public interest toward issues that are often ignored. Then it calls for justice for the murder of innocent men and womyn so that their families can live with some peace of mind, knowing that the ones responsible are held accountable. 

The ultimate goal of this project is to incite conversation – to ask critical questions about ourselves and the world in order to deconstruct a lot of our racial, social, and economic structures that have been in place in order to divide and conquer marginalized communities.

Why do you think social justice and art are so often intertwined?

Through art, we can have an impact on our culture, which then has an impact on our politics. Social justice will not be just if it doesn't establish positive social norms, and those social norms come from our collective values, beliefs, and ideas—which are heavily influenced by artists and visionaries. That’s why there’s such a need for more artists to be socially engaged these days.

As in the case of gay marriage and legalization of marijuana, we now see how the tide has shifted politically; with those issues, their acceptance and positive portrayal in popular culture preceded the politics. One of my favorite writers, Jeff Chang, once put it this way: "Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change.”

What inspires you?

The inspiration for my artistic activism is the rich history of art, culture, and politics coming out the Bay Area. I’ve done artwork in support of many causes, but racism in the form of immigration and police terrorism is at the forefront of my struggle. I grew up in the ’hood in LA – I’ve witnessed a lot of harassment from the Los Angeles Police Department and now have a lot of childhood friends who are dead or in jail. I feel it is necessary to share these stories in order to maintain our collective memory of who we once where, who we now are, and where we are headed.

Through art, I am able to give life to a borderless world where our main concerns are not to fight each other, but to unite in peace and continue to advance in spirituality, science, and technology for the improvement of all life on earth. My focus is on challenging racism, injustice, and inequality – those things that cause us to backtrack when we should really be moving forward. 

All images courtesy of Oree Originol