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.