The People’s Portraitist: Oree Originol

Portraiture has been at the heart of the fight against police violence. Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Alex Nieto — their faces have been indelibly lodged into the public consciousness like bold, black and white stamps asking us to never forget these lives cut short. But most people don’t realize that there’s one Oakland artist behind the most iconic posters. His name is Oree Originol and his project is called Justice For Our Lives.

Originol was raised in Los Angeles by parents who immigrated from Mexico. As a kid, his ears would poke out from the side of his head, so his friends called him “orejas” — a nickname that stuck even after he grew into his ears. Eventually it evolved into Oree.

Originol moved to Oakland in 2009, working as an abstract painter. He arrived amid the political turmoil following Oscar Grant’s death. “That left an impression on me,” he said.

In 2012, Originol met Oakland artist and activist leader Favianna Rodriguez. She employed him at her nonprofit Culture/Strike. That’s when Originol picked up design skills, and learned about the political power of circulating images. That was also around the time that he met Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes, the prolific political poster artists who make up Dignidad Rebelde.

Then came July 13, 2013, the night that George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, was acquitted. The streets of downtown Oakland were flooded with hurt and outraged protestors once again. Oree Originol was in the middle of a solo show of paintings at SoleSpace, next door to Frank Ogawa Plaza. But that night, he and Dignidad Rebelde had transformed the space into a print studio where people could replicate a poster made by Cervantes and Barraza featuring a portrait of Trayon Martin’s face with the words “My name is Trayvon Martin and my life matters.”

“That was a pivotal day for me,” said Originol.

That same week, the Black Lives Matter movement was launched. And six months later, Originol found himself at the third annual vigil for Oscar Grant’s death at Fruitvale station, not far from where he lives. Moved, he went home and made a simple black and white portrait of Oscar Grant and posted it to social media. After seeing its popularity, he decided to continue. “This [sharing] was telling me that people are really vibing with these designs,” he said, “but also they kind of need them as a means to continue these conversations.”

By August 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police, Originol was back at SoleSpace leading another open workshop for protestors — but that time, the windows of the venue were covered in portraits that he had made, already becoming iconic.

When Eric Garner was killed by the police in New York, New York protestors were holding up Originol’s Garner portrait in the streets. Soon enough, portraits posted on Originol’s Tumblr were garnering over fifty thousand re-blogs. And he began seeing the faces independently appear wheat-pasted on walls and even printed onto shirts.

They took on a life of their own.

Originol eventually decided to call the project Justice For Our Lives. He uploaded all of them for free download at — a place for them to live on.


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