A new documentary film explores the journey of artist Brian Bowens and his Symbol of Solidarity mural that sparked controversy, conversation and hope.
On a casual stroll or drive through the surrounding Philadelphia area, you may spot a colorful fist jutting up between the flowers of a front lawn or in the center of someone’s baseball cap. It’s part of a unifying message called Symbol of Solidarity, created by Jenkintown-based artist Brian “bbsketch” Bowens in response to the 2020 summer of protests. Bowens, best known for creating custom cleats for Philadelphia Eagles star, Brandon Graham, and his captivating illustrations of athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James, was asked to speak publicly at a vigil.
After being commissioned to paint a mural of the bright, multi-colored fist on the side of a building, Bowens’ Symbol of Solidarity was an immediate hit. After its unveiling, it was licensed for use on a number of items, including ping pong paddles used by the NBA’s players in their Orlando bubble last summer.
However, not everyone was a fan. Some residents became vocal opponents of Bowens’ art. They aimed to stop the mural project and questioned Bowens’ ability to profit from the Symbol of Solidarity that he created.
Bowens best friend, West Philadelphia-born and raised MTV producer Esteban Serrano decided to tell the story in a new feature-length documentary film — Symbol of Solidarity.
The more that I filmed Brian [Bowens], and dug into this story, the more I realized that it was representative of the issues at play throughout the country, and I knew that I had to tell this story,” recalled Serrano, a first-time filmmaker.
During a recent private socially distant screening where it was filmed – Jenkintown, Pennsylvania — pushback to the artistic message was minimal as the yays outweighed the nays.
“There are so many reasons why this story is important for me to share,” added Serrano. “Number one, it’s a story that has come out of the summer of protests that isn’t anger-filled, that doesn’t leave you depressed or sad. And, one of the biggest criticisms or feedback that we’ve gotten was that when you leave the theater, it’s such a triumphant feeling. You feel joyful, it felt like a great beginning, or it just uplifted you. And it was important for me to tell the story because it had a great ending and outcome. Another reason was because, Brian, who is one of my closest friends and has been since we were probably 13 years old, and I have worked together on any and every project that we could pull each other in on or create organically on our own. So when this kind of happened centered around him and his art, I wanted to tell that story, as well.”
“It’s a universal story about the power of art to capture your attention and express complex ideas in a way that speaks to everyone from small children to grandparents,” added Eric Blackerby, who served as a writer and producer on the documentary.
Serrano’s 17-year-old son, Josyah, made all the music in the film, and there’s a local Philly artist named Reef the Lost Cauze who is featured in the theme song. The song, once done, will feature artists from diverse backgrounds speaking on unity.
This film features interviews with Jenkintown Mayor Allyson Dobbs, Chief of Police Albert J. DiValentio and Borough Council President Deborra Pancoe.
“Brian’s art was the perfect response to the turmoil everyone experienced throughout 2020. His stunning image of solidarity and celebration of unity captured the essence of a community coming together to confront injustice, transcend tragedy, and forge forward as one. It leaves no one behind,” says Mayor Dobbs.
Describing Bowens’ art, Police Chief DiValentino states, “This was a beautiful project, embraced by me and our community. It’s a symbol of peace and unity that gives hope during the most difficult times in our society.”
Pancoe asserted, “This mural project is important to Jenkintown Borough because the expression of solidarity and action as symbolized by the multicolored fist and the words of unity in the background speak to the hopes for our community. It is important that we work together to address racism, antisemitism, classism, sexism, and genderism… all the “isms”, and to help folks understand how each of us collectively and as individuals can affect change in the systems that are keeping people down. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘No one is free until all of us are free.’”
You can view the Symbol of Solidarity film trailer HERE.