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Artists paint Black Lives Matter murals on boarded-up windows in Fort Wayne

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  • After George Floyd’s death, protests broke out in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and some downtown shops were damaged.
  • Thermopolis Smith III, an artist who goes by “Phresh Laundry,” was one of 100 local artists chosen to paint Black Lives Matter murals on boarded-up businesses.
  • A public art organization called Art This Way helped connect the artists with business owners, who will get to keep the art on their property.
  • Phresh Laundry says that painting helped him out of his lowest moments of life, and he hopes his work can inspire others, too.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

Editor’s note: The following contains language about suicide.

Theoplis Smith III — otherwise known as Phresh Laundry — is a self-taught artist whose latest paintings are on the boarded-up businesses of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“With the recent passing of George Floyd, this kind of got the city up in the uproar, if you will,” he told Business Insider Today. “Unfortunately, some people decided to come down and riot through the city and they broke glasses in the city of small businesses.”

After that happened, Smith was one of 100 local artists who came armed with paintbrushes to help. And now, almost every piece of plywood downtown has been transformed into murals with messages.

“When we see the boards going up, you know, we were just like, OK, this is a blank canvas. And we need to have some kind of a healing process,” he said.

Smith’s paintings offer thought-provoking takes on the aftermath of Floyd’s death and the conversations it has inspired. One mural, called “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee,” is painted by the window of a coffee shop. It shows a Black man sipping coffee with a white man as both sit on a larger coffee cup labeled “Black Lives Matter.”

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Theoplis Smith III, aka Phresh Laundry, is one of 100 artists commissioned to paint murals in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Erika Celeste for Business Insider Today


“You see a conversation between two people that are not alike,” Smith said. “One person has a smaller cup in his hand, but we’re sitting on a bigger cup of the other person’s issues. And it’s more so an invitation to say, ‘Hey, I want to swap life with you. I want to understand you more and I want to grow with you together.'”

For Smith, painting on these unconventional canvases has offered a chance to express what the Black Lives Matter movement means to him, and to share his own story and identity.

“To be an African American male, I take pride in who I am, my culture, and I wanted to make sure that what I do is something that’s inviting, it’s tasteful, and something that brings the community together,” he said.

A volunteer-run program called Art This Way — which has been working to install more public art in downtown Fort Wayne over the last five years — made the project possible by connecting artists with business owners, who then decide what to do with the finished pieces.

“We have relationships with the businesses here in town, and this is obviously private property still,” the group’s manager and cofounder, Alexandra Hall, told Business Insider Today. “So it was something to have artists approach them all day long and ask for permission. But as an organization, we really were able to make that happen more easily and facilitate, and also provide stipends for the artists.”

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For Smith, painting has offered a chance to express what the Black Lives Matter movement means to him, and to share his own story and identity.

Erika Celeste for Business Insider Today


Residents have welcomed the bright colors.

“I think that it spreads a positive message in this time for a change for the Black community and the community overall,” said Miracle James, who celebrated her Sweet 16 by posing with the murals. “And I just think it’s just strong and empowering.”

Painting has always been empowering for Phresh Laundry. And his name is a powerful reminder for him.

“I found myself literally in a load of dirty clothes laying on the ground, frustrated with life,” he said. “I was like, why am I here? Why do I exist? And I found myself at a lowest point where I was either going to do damage to, you know, something or someone else, or pretty much kill myself.

“The only time I felt that relief was either talking to people, praying, or painting. And so I would go through bouts, battles for battles, you know, every night where I would paint every night so I could think clear. And so anytime that I’m painting, this is me hanging my laundry versus hanging a canvas or a piece of art.

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“Me being a soft-spoken person, this is my loudest voice that I have,” he said.

Erika Celeste for Business Insider Today


He continued: “And me being a soft-spoken person, this is my loudest voice that I have, and being able to share, and kind of invite people into a world of more than just a picture and brushstrokes — that’s when it becomes therapy. Art becomes therapy for me.”

His art saved him, and ultimately, he hopes it can help mend some of the nation’s wounds, too.

“I mean, we’re in a pandemic in a pandemic,” Theo said. “I have hope, but also I’m human. I don’t think that everything will be ironed out in my lifetime, and I’m OK with that.

“I like to kind of share things and my point of view and my perspective, or what may pierce my heart, or what may challenge others. I think some people, you can’t force-feed topics, whether it be political or social or economical. But as an artist, I find that it’s my job and it’s my gift to be able to explore and share those stories.”

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