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Bay Area artist’s portraits serve as backdrop to Black Lives Matter movement

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Oree Originol — real name Daniel Aguilera Jimenez — has quietly become an integral part of the Black Lives Matter movement and other campaigns across the nation to end police violence against minorities. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The black and white images — all faces — look like cartooned saints. And, like saints, they are all of the dead. But these so-called “martyrs” were slain by police and have become the faces of a movement born to confront the brutality of law enforcement.

Mario Woods. Alex Nieto. Oscar Grant. Michael Brown.

The names go on.

The portraits can be found everywhere: plastered on city walls, printed on T-shirts and in the hands of activists at various meetings and protests. The clean, thick black lines describe each face, turning them into something more than reproductions of the dead.

From Baltimore to the Bayview, effigies of the dead are not unusual at Black Lives Matter protests. But one local man’s images in particular have become commonplace.

Oree Originol began the project Justice for Our Lives in 2014 after he visited an Oscar Grant memorial at the Fruitvale BART station. Grant was fatally shot at the station on Jan. 1, 2009 by a BART police officer who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Originol, whose real name is Daniel Aguilera Jimenez, came home and was compelled to do something about police brutality. So he drew his first portrait, of Grant, by hand and then honed it on his computer.

“I gotta do a picture today,” Jimenez recalls thinking. Now, he explores the Internet for the faces and traces them before finalizing each piece in Photoshop.

Since then, the thin and soft spoken 31-year-old Angelino, has completed dozens of portraits, which are free to download on his many social media sites. In all, Jimenez has created 49 portraits of the dead, many of which are from the Bay Area.

But some of his pieces are of people from distant places, people little known to the public. (A Bernie Sanders for President ad featured his drawing of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 while in a police chokehold restraint.) Jimenez says families have contacted him from Texas and Oklahoma asking for their dead to be memorialized.

“It’s been really tough,” he said. “It’s a project that I can’t say I necessarily enjoy.”

Jimenez’s first portrait may have been of Grant, but the project didn’t truly jumpstart until the police killing of Alex Nieto in March 2014 by San Francisco police officers.

“The Alex Nieto one was the one that started the rest,” he said. “It caused folks [to start] using this out in the streets.”

Unlike his connection to other portraits, Jimenez has met with Nieto’s parents and friends, which gives him a direct emotional connection.

“He’s someone who I could have probably met,” he said, as he flipped through a stack of portraits on colored paper inside his Oakland studio.

The Nieto portrait took off. It was quickly picked up by activists and people who knew the 28-year-old San Francisco native and created a local groundswell. Soon Jimenez’s portraits of Nieto were at the head of marchers down Mission Street and outside federal court as his civil trial was held.

Few, if any, knew Jimenez was responsible for the images of Nieto plastered across San Francisco. And he wanted it that way. Jimenez says he didn’t use his real name on the project because he didn’t want to be a focus.

“People just don’t know who’s doing them because my names not on there,” he said of the most popular artwork of his career.

The fame he’s gained through anonymity is a marked divergence from the world in which he was raised.

Originally from the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, Jimenez came to the Bay Area in 2009.

Early on, he expelled much of his energies on graffiti. In fact, his pseudonym — Oree — is a variation of his tag. The word is derived from “oreja” — Spanish for “ear” — a nickname he earned from his friends because of the size of his ears.

Then, Jimenez’s artwork was about scrawling his name on as many walls and bus stops as he could. But now, aside from the styling and its implicit challenge to the system, he says his work has little to do with his graffiti.

It’s much less about fame and more about larger social struggles, he said. But the focus on the project has taken its toll, and Jimenez says he’s reached the point where he is going to set it aside.

“I’m starting to be affected mentally, just always thinking about death,” he said.

Oree Originol’s exhibition, “Take This Hammer,” runs in San Francisco through Aug. 14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For more information, visit www.oreeoriginol.tumblr.com.

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  • Rufus

    If you want to take on “the man”, keep doing your little art project. I’m sure it will not have much of an affect.

    However if your intent is to call attention to the deaths of all black lives you’ll shift your focus to posting the images of innocent people killed in gang wars and criminal violence.

    Without cops doing their jobs, we have no future. But if gangsters and gun toting criminals all of a sudden stopped killing folks……..

  • private

    THREE of these so-called “martyrs”of the“brutality of law enforcement” are examples of people who made poor decisions when confronted by officers. While the Woods shooting is still under investigation, the actions of the officers in the Nieto and Brown shootings have been cleared by jury decision or DOJ investigation.

    In the case of Oscar Grant, it appears that the officer accidentally shot Grant with his pistol, intending to use his Taser instead. This is not an example of police brutality but rather a tragic mistake and justice was served when the officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter at trial.

    How many of the Oree Originol’s 49 portraits of the dead are NOT “SAINTS” but rather violent criminals who fought with officers and resisted arrest. How strong can the foundation of an organization like BLM be if the foundation is built on lies and fabrications like the Hands-Up don’t Shoot Ferguson MYTH?

  • Clark Sullivan

    One of the greatest menaces to public health is the SFPD. They are trigger happy liars who serve as agents of gentrification. Get real, private and Rufus!

  • private

    Clark, Originol’s drawings are not limited just to people killed by the SFPD. FYI – I looked at the Guardians “The Counted” data for 2015. If you filter the police shootings by race for unarmed deaths in California the total is 30, NONE involving the SFPD. So far in 2016, two unarmed males have been shot and killed in California, none involving the SFPD. I think you have to GET REAL with the FACTS.

    Perhaps Originol should consider portraits of TRULY INNOCENT victims, who received only a small amount of press and rarely any national coverage. Where is the attention for the 42 police officers that were shot and killed in 2015 while protecting the public? Except for immediate family and friends, how many people remember their names?

  • Hardy Stevenson

    True Art has little to do with agenda. This is exploitation of Art. Art for Arts sake!
    Expose posers!

  • Silly Liberals

    Too bad the crime pasts of these people are not listed.
    Why is there no mention of the thousands of people slaughtered by black people in this country every year? Oh yeah, no profit for the race baiters.
    The biggest threat to black people and the rest of society are black people, but why bring reality into the conversation.

  • SF_Resident_Since_1989

    I’m sorry to hear this amazing artist has compassion fatigue. He has done so much to help raise attention. I remember the first time I saw his Alex Nieto portrait I didn’t know what it was for but I stopped and found out because it was so powerful. For those of you who think he should do things differently, feel free to do it yourselves.

  • BuckOfama

    Very few of these “Saints” turn out to be saints. Sure, occasionally there is a wrongful death at the hands of police, such as Laquan Macdonald and Walter Scott. But most police shootings are righteous and proper. How about the true innocent Saints like the innocent black children that are mercilessly killed by gangbangers for no reason.

    Oh right, black on black killings are not politically exploitable nor are they worth money.