South Berkeley creative studio has become a community hub and protest sign-making machine

Abby VanMujien holds up a sign she made honoring Breonna Taylor in front of Rogue Mark Studio’s storefront in South Berkeley. Much of the funding for the sign making comes from donations. July 1, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

July 6, 2020

BERKELEYSIDE — When the country erupted in protest after the death of George Floyd on May 25, Abby VanMuijen took a small step to show support: she put a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of her South Berkeley business, set out some paint, and invited a few friends to make their own. One sign led to another and, by the end of the night, the windows of RogueMark Studios were plastered with fists raised in solidarity for Black lives and silhouettes of George Floyd.

Since then, RogueMark Studios, which is at the northeast corner of Ashby and Shattuck avenues — one of the city’s busiest intersections and a main thoroughfare for foot and car traffic — has become a community hub and sign-making headquarters, with passing drivers blaring their horns in support of the movement for racial justice. The catalyst for this transformation was VanMuijen, owner of the studio — a female-founded creative agency whose team of illustrators, animators and writers have worked for clients like the MIT Community Innovators Lab and the Walmart Foundation — along with a ragtag group of artists and volunteers demonstrating for political change.

“The origin story of where the sign making came from was a very organic process of wanting to make some art and talk with friends about what was going on, and it has evolved since then,” VanMuijen told Berkeleyside.

The facade and front door to RogueMark Studios on Ashby Avenue is plastered with homemade signs calling for racial justice. Photo: Pete Rosos
A volunteer hands out free signs on in the parking lot opposite RogueMark Studios on June 6, the day of racial justice protests in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

By mid-June, the informal sign-making effort had become a daily event. In total, VanMuijen estimates volunteers, artists and passers-by have created and distributed more than 2,000 signs to date. The sign making gives way to conversations about racism. Before protests, people discuss, while painting signs, how they might participate — whether to listen, ask questions or step back. And the sidewalk outside the shop has become a natural meeting space for people heading to protests or returning from them.

“It opened up a space to be able to have conversations around racism and anti-racism work, and also just for people walking by to join the conversation,” said VanMuijen. What started as a gathering of a group of friends has attracted participation from neighbors throughout Berkeley, young and old, new and long-time residents, as well as city employees like firefighters, city council members and police officers.

“It’s been cool to see folks use sign-making to help navigate some of their discomfort.” — Abby VanMuijen

Among those having conversations about racism are parents with young children, who come to paint a sign and end up talking to their kids about why people are protesting.

“We’ve been able to create the space for some families to utilize art as a tool for having difficult conversations,” VanMuijen said. “It’s been cool to see folks use sign-making to help navigate some of their discomfort.”

By providing pre-made stencils, RogueMark volunteers lower the barrier for entry for people who aren’t sure what to put on a sign, including young kids.

“Art is intimidating and anti-racism work is intimidating,” VanMuijen said. “It’s been lovely to create a space where people who are on all different phases of that journey can take a step into what they’re thinking and what they believe.”

Those who do choose to paint their own signs are intentional with the slogans they choose. Some have made signs in support of Black Trans Lives, while others have made signs emphasizing economic justice, painting messages like, “Cherish Black Livelihoods.” Others have taken an individualized, reflective approach with signs that read “White Silence is Violence.”

The sign making has expanded beyond Ashby Avenue, too. Volunteers have created popup sign-making stations at protests across the East Bay, including Pride events like “Brown Love, Black Pride” which took place in Oakland on June 27.

The sign-making effort is one of many spontaneous community-driven initiatives that have sprung up throughout the Bay Area in the last months, from informal neighborhood COVID-19 support networks to teenagers standing with signs on street corners.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of momentum right now, a tremendous amount of need and desire and emotion and opportunity for shift and movement. I think to respond, we’re going to need to allow spaces and places and ideas to emerge naturally,” said Liz Penny, a program design and implementation specialist who has been instrumental in sustaining the RogueMark sign-making effort in the last month.

Cardboard stencils and spray paint cans outside the RogueMark Studios storefront are free to use for anyone. Photo: Pete Rosos

Art as a way to explain big ideas

The transition is a natural one for VanMuijen, who founded RogueMark Studios in 2015 to use art, illustration and animation to explain big, systemic ideas. The studio grew out of The #GlobalPOV Project, which VanMuijen created with a Cal professor during her senior year, which used animation to help people visualize the impact of global poverty. About half the projects that artists in the studio take on have been related to social justice. For instance, one project for the Public Defenders of Alameda County aimed to raise awareness for the role that prosecutorial power plays in the criminal justice system.

Still, the last month has been a shift for VanMuijen, one that she believes is shaping her business for the better. Previously, RogueMark hadn’t engaged the Berkeley community as directly as it is now. It’s something VanMuijen hopes will continue.

“The last couple of months, it’s felt like RogueMark has been living out its purpose, where it didn’t feel quite as strongly like that before,” VanMuijen said. “I’m excited to open up the possibilities of what we can make and think more about how murals, bringing in illustration, animation and graphic recording might support the work of Black organizers and thought leaders. How can we use those tool-sets to help uplift and help folks engage with racial justice work?”

Free music, coffee and empanadas for the cause

Diana Days at Café Buenos Aires in Berkeley.
Diana Days at Café Buenos Aires in Berkeley. Photo, taken in February: Justine Wang

One of the people joining in the momentum has been Diana Days from next-door Cafe Buenos Aires. Days has played music from her speakers and provided free coffee and empanadas to sustain the volunteers.

“I’m honestly leading with my heart here — it’s not with my pocket,” Days said. “As a trans woman having gone through everything I’ve gone through in my life, I’m really enjoying the ride. I feel that with everybody that’s been marginalized and particularly people of color… we either do something about it or we sit back and lose what we’ve got. It’s something I support very deeply.”

As part of a burgeoning friendship, Days and VanMuijen have started planning to install commemorative benches on the wall between their businesses. The benches will be decorated in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the business owners haven’t decided on a design.

As for RogueMark, VanMuijen hopes this will be the dawn of a new era for the business, one that’s immersed in community engagement and driven by relationships with Berkeley neighbors.

“I have no plans to have it stop. It’s been lovely to begin those conversations and begin a foundation for doing more work together as a community,” VanMuijen said.

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