Update April 1, 2016: Michael D’Antuono’s documentary has been released to the public as of March 30, 2016. Please see the 13-minute video below. Warning: There is explicit content and lyrics throughout video.
From having artwork banned on eBay to family members receiving threatening letters, what Michael D’Antuono paints is not for the faint of heart. His artwork has been debated in schools, and parents complained about a high school teacher showcasing his work.
The New Yorker took time to speak with Sun Times Network about what made him so passionate about political, social and environmental issues, and his 2016 documentary “Black In(justice).”
Shamontiel Vaughn: What was your very first piece of art? Inspiration for it?
Michael D’Antuono: I’ve been making art since I was big enough to hold a pencil. The first piece I remember that obtained the high honor of making it to the refrigerator door was an unmistakable likeness of my grandfather, complete with cap and cane. I was about three or four years old at the time of that accomplishment. The piece had absolutely no social significance.
(In reference to) political paintings, “The Truth” — my portrait of President Obama standing in front of the presidential seal wearing a thorn of crowns was my first political piece. The inspiration for that was the polar opposite accounts on the president rendered by different news organizations and the divisional effect on the masses.
SV: What was your very first piece of art that sold? Inspiration for it?
MA: In elementary school, I was called down to the principal’s office. As I worriedly walked that long walk to his office, I wondered what it was I was in trouble for. To my great surprise and relief, he wanted to buy my first prize-winning pastel of Mr. Spock. Instead of a beating — it happened when I was a kid — I walked away with a brand new $5 bill. And believe me, five dollars in the 1960s could buy a lot!
SV: How long have you been an artist? When did you start?
MA: I have always been an artist. I spent many years in advertising as an illustrator and art director. I started my fine art career in 2005, breaking through with my sociopolitical art in 2009.
Gallery: Check out some of Michael D’Antuono’s paintings
SV: You are clearly not afraid of painting controversial issues. What makes you keep going no matter the backlash?
MA: Ironically, it’s that backlash that fuels me. My biggest regret is that I folded under pressure from my family concerned with my safety (and canceled) my New York installation of “The Truth” in 2009. Being my first socially conscious painting, we weren’t prepared for the death threats, thousands of hate emails and planned protests. Almost immediately after canceling, I was incensed that I allowed anyone to persuade me into relinquishing my First Amendment rights. I have vowed to myself not to ever let that happen again.
SV: What ever came about with the Trayvon Martin piece that was taken down off of eBay? If you are willing to disclose, how much was donated to the Trayvon Martin Foundation?
MA: I had offered to donate 50 percent of the proceeds of the sale to the foundation. Unfortunately, on the same day George Zimmerman was permitted to complete his auction, earning ($100,099.99), eBay prematurely shut mine down for violating their policy of not selling any KKK-related items. So I didn’t sell the painting, which is a shame because based on the momentum of the bidding, we were on track to far exceed what Zimmerman got. The sad part was that eBay had over 1,500 other KKK-related items on their site at the time.
SV: You have taken on the NRA, Congress, people against Obama, religion, Planned Parenthood, environmentalism, etc. Which of these issues are you the most passionate about? Why?
MA: In my opinion, all of those issues stem from one common element: greed. When you sub-divide them, I think the environment is the most pressing issue we face. Sadly, the greed of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians and media outlets who take their money might prevent us from solving the problem in time.
SV: Are you active in any groups, community, charity?
MA: My work with organizations has been limited due to the controversial nature of my work. While the individuals within large organizations privately praise my work, the organizations tend to shy away from it so as not to offend potential donors. I effectively further their cause as a kind of independent black ops artist they can disavow any association with.
SV: What made you decide to go from paintings to the documentary?
MA: Instead of just painting about the problem of racism in the criminal justice system, I thought it would be more constructive to paint the solution. It seemed obvious to me that the best way to earn the trust of the communities they serve is to stop killing unarmed citizens. They say most cops are good, but good cops don’t let bad cops get away with murder. So I painted “It Stops With Cops” in hopes that it might embolden those good cops out there to break through the blue wall of silence.
MA (cont.): I rented a 17-foot mobile billboard, made an 8-foot banner and ordered 500 posters of the piece to hand out at the Freddie Gray trial in Baltimore and the Laquan McDonald protests in Chicago. The protestors in both cities embraced my concept, about 80-90 percent of them enthusiastically waving my posters and banner to promote its simple message.
I had an instinct that perhaps I should take a videographer with me to document the events. The conversations I had with members of the predominantly black community in Baltimore made me realize that their horrific experiences of police brutality needed to be heard by white people across the country who have no concept of how bad the problem really is.
One story was more harrowing than the next. I also met up with Ray Kelly, a retired Philadelphia police captain, who was brave enough to admit his own past brutality and reveal why he thinks the police won’t change. We also spoke with some ex-convicts and a former prison guard to explore the similar problems within the penal system.
SV: What made you take on so many issues that may speak more heavily to African-Americans?
MA: Along with greed and hypocrisy, one of the most reprehensible characteristics of the human condition is our willingness to hate others because their physical characteristics might be slightly different from our own. Many people tend to think that the abolishment of slavery was the end of the mistreatment of the (African-American) race. Even at that, schools in the southern states teach that states rights, not slavery, was the primary cause of the civil war, while self-proclaimed patriots drive around proudly waving the confederate flag from their pickup truck. Thanks to the modern technology of cell phone video, white people are slowly becoming aware of how little we have advanced in achieving racial equality. We blame our ancestors for slavery, but don’t take responsibility for conditions today.
MA (cont.): It upsets me that some people would rather blame the high unemployment and incarceration rate among African-Americans on laziness or inherent lack of character, rather than the racist system that offers them a less-than-equal opportunity for a decent education. We have to take responsibility for laws that consign a poor black kid with very few options selling a small amount of weed to a lifetime of prison while (white people connected to) white collar criminals (are) bilking our nation out of billions (and) walk free. I paint about our country’s continued mistreatment of African-Americans because it’s so morally wrong and not beyond our collective ability to correct.