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The JMZ Walls Throws Color to Shade

“I’m blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle” is a line from Brooklyn rapper Mos Def’s song “Mathematics.” These words are also the subject of a piece, which artist Jay Shells made for his Rap Quotes project. Shells makes lyrics-inspired signs and installs them in the exact location referenced by rappers such as as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Shells’ work is very site-specific. So it makes perfect sense that he would pay homage to Mos Def’s words in his contribution to the JMZ Walls, which is located at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway where Bushwick and Bedstuy meet.

Jay Shells

Jay Shells

The mission of the JMZ Walls is to “make the JMZ lines more colorful – one wall, one gate, one space at a time.” If you are not already familiar with the area, it’s near the Myrtle Avenue-Broadway station, which is elevated and consists of two island platforms dating as far back as 1888. The raised structure casts a continuous shadow on the streets below, which are lined with bodegas and some fast food chains. The area is a spot of high activity with commuters and locals shuffling through daily.

View of Broadway

View of Broadway

Initiated in 2014, the JMZ Walls is a non-profit founded by a long time neighborhood resident who saw an opportunity to invigorate the community through street art. Similar to the Bushwick Collective, it is motivated by the idea that urban art has the power to influence its surrounding environment, educate and inspire residents, and shape the experience of visitors.

You immediately sense that the artists carefully considered how their murals could work to beautify the area while communicating about societal and cultural issues. NYC spray artist Lexi Bella created a captivating portrait of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who is now revered as a feminist icon. Danielle Mastrion, also a spray artist based in NYC, contributed two memorial murals honoring Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen who was killed by police last year and legendary poet and author Maya Angelou. Local street artist Fumero riffs art history’s obsession with the reclining nude, presenting a contemporary version that proudly defies conventions of beauty. Plasmaslug, Shiro, Rob Plater, bkfoxx, the Code, Bella Amaral, and Zukie Zuk are other artists who worked on the project.

We should note that Mos Def’s lyrics were written in 1999. The line has a cautionary tone, and could be addressing a number of things about the intersection at Myrtle and Broadway. Today, Mos Def’s lyrics serve more as a point of reference, showing the progress that the JMZ Walls is making to enliven the area through art.