From the streets
The Trust Your Struggle collective’s Sol Collective exhibit uses graffiti art to spotlight social injustices
The smell of freshly dried paint permeates Sol Collective. The Sacramento gallery’s once-blank walls have transformed, via dozens of cans of MTN 94 spray paint, into a floor-to-ceiling mural that represents the divine feminine. She sits, extending a turquoise hand, guiding the viewer forward to take in the room’s art—and message—along the way.
Nearby, handsaws hang from the wall, hand-painted with bold pops of color and precise lettering that screams “Resist.”
Ten feet down, there’s a photo of a mural painted to depict Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American teen shot dead in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of his death to great controversy and criticism. Martin’s eyes stare penetratingly from under his hoodie. The sadness and longing captured in his eyes is commanding—an invitation to stop and take in the collective pain felt by his death.
Elsewhere in the room, the light shines off a golden-hued painting that shows images of black and brown children.
The exhibit, on display through Jan. 2, represents nearly two decades worth of art and activism from the Trust Your Struggle artist collective. Each piece, all created with spray paint, is dedicated to those whose voices have been silenced.
Founded in 2003, the collective includes more than a dozen artists from around the country, including Sacramento residents Shaun Burner, Franceska Gamez and Miguel Perez.
Gamez, one of the most recent additions to the crew, painted one of the exhibit’s largest pieces—the striking “Parts of a Whole,” which examines the feminine form layered with images of staircases that lead to different parts of the body.
With the collective spread out across the country, it’s rare they’re able to gather as a group. Still, they have created hundreds of large-scale murals, public art exhibitions and installations over the years. The collective has also hosted arts education workshops across the globe—Sacramento, New York, Manchester, England and Colombia.
All the events are done with a similar mission: Use art to speak to current social justice issues that affect communities locally and globally.
“We all had a desire to speak about injustice and to highlight people who were doing something about it,” said Trust Your Struggle co-founder Robert Liu-Trujillo. “Whether that be a collaboration for a local cause that is subtle or an overt denunciation of a particular action by the U.S. government or other states against people, it is important to us.”
The collective’s primary medium has evolved since the dawn of time.
Graffiti can be traced as far back as cave paintings on walls throughout indigenous cultures, emerging in more recent history in places as disparate as the 1800s railroads and World War II trenches. In modern times, graffiti is rooted in counterculture. Over the years, the art form blossomed from an expression of love (one of modern graffiti’s originators, Cornbread, first took his art to the streets to impress a girl), to a cultural phenomenon adopted by hip-hop pioneers, who infused politics and social justice into its themes.
Modern graffiti has given some of art’s biggest names their start: Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and others. In 2017, “Untitled,” a piece painted under Basquiat’s graffiti name, SAMO, sold at auction for $110.5 million, a record for an American artist.
Despite its widespread impact, the form still has its critics, mostly from law enforcement. It’s this criticism and conflict that forced artists to find alternative avenues for their work, taking graffiti to the canvas.
As artists who started in the streets, Trust Your Struggle members knew they needed to do more to get their message across. Founded in the Bay Area by original members Ben Rojas, Scott La Rockwell and Trujillo, the collective formed through a desire to spread a message with art. Since then, it’s grown to include 14 members across the country.
“We were all creating artwork that spoke on similar topics. We had all been involved in other crews and decided to join forces after a show we did called ’In Struggle We Trust,’” Trujillo says.
Eventually, the collective recruited other artists, including Burner, who joined in 2006. Burner, who had a hand in multiple pieces in the show, says the group is not about creating pretty, decorative art.
“We speak through a visual language to tell our stories, and the stories of those left behind or forgotten,” he says.
Each artist’s work represents a personal point of view, but with a common thread, Burner says.
“For some of us, we infuse our cultural traditions in with the pieces, for some of us we infuse our political beliefs,” he says. “But for all of us, it’s so much more than just paint on a canvas. It’s life, as an art form.”