A Painted Casket Tells the Story of Police Brutality in America

DeAndre Drake's casket contains the faces and names of Nia Wilson, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and more.  (Airballin)

DeAndre Drake, an artist from Oakland who works under the name Airballin, recently airbrushed a casket with images of victims of police brutality. And for lack of a better word, it's beautiful.

The casket is vibrant. Next to the names and faces with which we've come to be familiar, Drake has painted images of people who took notable political stands: Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick and Assata Shakur. There's also a police line's yellow tape, an American flag, a Confederate flag, the 14th Amendment, a baby in the crosshairs of a rifle's scope and JFK's famous words: "We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth."

Drake reveals the casket to the public on Saturday, July 18, as part of the pop-up art show My Skin Is Not A Crime at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland.

Drake's casket comes during an ongoing series of actions this summer in response to the issue of police brutality. I've seen people jogging in solidarity, sitting in honor of those killed and even skateboarding down Twin Peaks while toting signs that read "Black Lives Matter."

But this show of solidarity is a bit more morbid, and blunt. It's also a new level of artwork for Drake.

The "My Skin Is Not a Crime" airbrushed casket
The 'My Skin Is Not a Crime' airbrushed casket, created by DeAndre Drake.

Last year, he airbrushed backpacks as a part of a giveaway for school kids in Oakland. He once used an Indy car as a canvas for a paint job inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In December of 2018, I watched as he and his daughter painted nude models at a warehouse in West Oakland.

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So why suddenly make a political statement with a casket?

“The most touching part of George Floyd’s story was the quote from his daughter,” says Drake over the phone. “'My daddy changed the world.'”

Drake wants his own daughter to be able to look at him and say the same words—not just because he painted a casket, but because he used his art to bring awareness. “It's not guaranteed to change the world, but it's my attempt,” he says.

And he's not alone in his effort, the community has already shown support.

Drake says that after paying for the casket in full, he told the business, Titan Casket, about his plans. They immediately refunded him 25% of the total.

When he ran behind on finishing the project, he got backup from another artist, Rich Diltz, who came down from the Sacramento area to support the endeavor.

The Joyce Gordon Gallery is hosting the casket and, on Saturday, holding a memorial dedicated to those who’ve lost their lives to police violence. Cephus X Johnson (aka “Uncle Bobby”), the uncle of Oscar Grant and a police accountability activist, is scheduled to speak.

And the casket itself will have a mock funeral procession, with a real hearse donated by Thompson Funeral home. That procession will be flanked by a group of bikers, convening at the Rockridge Jamba Juice at 12:45pm and leaving at 1:45pm. The bikers are scheduled to meet up with the hearse at the Lucky’s on E. 18th around 2:15pm, and then ride the southern rim of Lake Merritt all the way to the Joyce Gordon Gallery on 14th Street.

The memorial event runs from 3pm to 7pm, and afterward, the casket will be on display in the gallery for a short period.

Sandra Bland, the 14th Amendment, an enslaved young man, Trayvon Martin and Nia Wilson all grace the casket created by DeAndre Drake.
Sandra Bland, the 14th Amendment, an enslaved young man, Trayvon Martin and Nia Wilson all grace the casket created by DeAndre Drake. (Airballin)

Drake says there are three larger goals for his piece of art. First, he’d love for the casket to go on a tour of museums and galleries around the United States, once they’ve reopened to the public. He’d eventually like it to be at the Oakland Musuem of California for some time. And lastly, he wants to auction the casket and donate the money to local organizations who provide frontline services for the African American community.

These are ambitious goals, but Drake isn't easily intimidated—he's already overcome a lot in his career as an artist.

This coming fall he's set to release a documentary called Pen to Pencil, which chronicles how he picked up the craft while incarcerated, and always saw his artwork as a way to make money.

"I've never done political work in my art career," says Drake. “I’ve always done art as a business, from day one. And I was told early on in my business career, 'Never mix your politics with your business.'"

That's why he kept his personal feelings out of his art for so long; to reach a larger audience and not ruffle any feathers while doing so. But now he has no hesitation about using his art to make statements, even if that means losing some clients. "The business I would possibly be losing now isn't the business I want anyways,” he says.

While it's honorable for any artist, especially an "artistic hustler," to fight for change, I'd argue that in the mere fact he's created this eye-catching work, the change has already been created, and the world slightly altered. If for no one else, then for a little girl out there who can say, "My daddy did that."