Rallies and marches aren’t the only means of protesting a lethally toxic police culture and hyper-aggressive tactics used against communities of color. For 36-year-old Chicano visual artist Oree Originol, protest takes the form of an open-source digital portrait series, Justice For Our Lives, (JFOL). Underscored by its stark black and white motif, Originol’s portraits honor the people whose lives were taken by police and other U.S. law enforcement.
Originally from northeast Los Angeles, Originol relocated to the Bay Area in 2009 after Oscar Grant was filmed being shot to death at the Fruitvale BART station by police officer Johannes Mehserle. Originol recalled the contrast between the social and political fabric of the Bay Area and LA and was unprepared for the organization and coordination of protests that followed Grant’s death.
“I remember one thing that really struck me when I moved out here was the activism challenging police brutality—or in this case, a police-killing,” Originol said. “It was the first video that went viral of somebody being killed by the police and that really left an impression on me. Seeing all the protests motivated me to do the type of work that I’ve been doing since then.”
Originol began work on what would eventually become JFOL in January 2014 after attending the 5th anniversary memorial of Grant’s death. Inspired by the simplicity of street artist Shepard Fairey’s Obey logo and a black and white portrait of Kendrick Lamar he once saw in a magazine, Originol crafted the color pallet and design he would ultimately go with on JFOL.
“Every year I go to the vigil at Fruitvale BART and that day I came home and decided to do a portrait of him and put it out there,” Originol said.
Originol posted Grant’s portrait online using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. He began drawing more portraits memorializing victims of police violence, using social media to share his portraits throughout 2014. His artwork gained considerable attention after the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the years since, Originol’s portraits have become regular fixtures at protests throughout the country against police brutality. He has completed 100 portraits honoring victims of police violence such as Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and others killed by police.
JFOL also memorializes other victims of state-sanctioned violence. The series includes portraits of people such as Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas, Valeria Munique Tachiquin-Alvarado, and Claudia Patricia Gomez-Gonzalez—all victims of violence committed by U.S. Border Patrol and customs agents.
“Even though I decided I would only tell the stories of people killed by law enforcement, it wasn’t just necessarily people killed by police,” Originol said. “[I] also [tell the stories of people killed by] Border Patrol and ICE to express how this is a broader issue of state-sponsored violence that affects different communities and spans across both various agencies.”
Most recently, Originol’s work was prominently featured as a mural installation in a new exhibit at The Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C. ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now showcases the work of Chicano artists who have used graphic arts to address social injustices over the past fifty years. Originol is proud of what his art series says about the violence used by law enforcement and who pays the cost.
“It’s fulfilling to know that I’ve produced something that has been a tool for people in the movement, to share these stories with people from around the world and gain further visibility for the cause,” he said. “It made me realize the importance of bringing the community together in order to solve these problems.”
Seven years after starting JFOL, awareness around police brutality and state violence has reached a fever pitch. In 2021, racism in policing, the militarization of law enforcement, and police violence remain at the forefront of the national psyche and Black and brown lives are still paying the cost. Surrounding the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on and killed George Floyd, are the deaths by police shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant, and too many others to count. Having now completed 100 portraits, Originol plans to compile his work into a book complete with photos from protests, as well as testimonials from organizers and family members giving the backstory of victims and the incidents.
Many obstacles remain in the nation’s struggle to hold a violent police culture that disproportionately targets Black and other communities of color accountable for its actions. However, Originol remains optimistic that people can bring about change and move forward toward a system that is less lethal, more equitable, and focused on providing what communities really need.
“We can hope but, it’s not just hope that’s going to get us where we need to be,” he said. “We need to continue to work amongst ourselves. Having the community come together is the only way we’ll be able to bring justice, and there’s no real justice unless the community comes together.”