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Playlist: Butter on Spotify
Soul Rotation was a galvanizing experience for my return to form in the creative hemisphere. A heartfelt experience, matched by an equally warm reception. I’ll admit since then there have been some restless nights. My headspace craved to plot out the next steps of this saga, and decided the 8-hour budget for REM cycles could stand to be trimmed. But anyone who cares about anything deeply knows that being tired is part and parcel with the pursuit of happiness. What mattered now was the integrity of this chapter, and maintaining tenets that underscored the imperative of enshrining the human experience. This led to a framework for identifying candidates. Those who: possessed a distinct passion in their craft, a purpose to reach others through this artform, and the wherewithal to generate progress regardless of circumstances. Within this Venn diagram, three profiles emerged. And to my deepest appreciation, all parties agreed to participate. To those who allow me into their domain, I take full responsibility in stewarding a narrative that magnifies their realm.
In truth my excitement was a smoothie blended with anxiousness. Having only been my second round of photojournalism, matched by a tough act to follow from working with Salad. Conversely, there’s a lot on the table with this piece, and a self-imposed sense of diligence had me walking a mental tight rope. With the different angles of this story I wanted to maximize the volume of justice I could provide for it. Transparency is a staple of these works, and my drive over was riddled with stress. Visiting a part of town I normally don’t frequent, life was teeming on every block. Rows and rows of two story apartments led me to a stand-alone row home on the side of a hill. A blur of black and white shapes streaked past as I drove deeper into the neighborhood. This artistic amalgamation confirmed my compass. He’s here, and that’s what matters.
As I opened my car door I was immediately affronted by a loud and steady stream of traffic noises from the avalanche of cars barreling down I-95/I-64. This immediately drowned out any peaceful energy I had mustered listening to the featured playlist on my way in. Remnants of thick, wood-like vines clung to a thin chain link fence, the only separation from the Mad Max style scene going on down below. A bouquet of weeds persisted along the dilapidated sidewalk. It wasn’t as hot out as last week’s ungodly heatwave, but it still wasn’t what I would consider pleasant in the sun. A corner store stood alone out across the street. The boxy and long shape had seen better days, but was roughly inconspicuous. Weathered, no signs, bars on the windows. Adorned with a litany of advisories ranging from no smoking, to no loitering, and finally no trespassing. Open spaces on the window panes were covered in residue from previous flyers. An ignorant bystander might look at this scene and suppose the area has fallen on hard times, rather than the other way around.
Rounding the corner the initial wave of stress quickly withdrew. My field of vision was suddenly flooded with the familiar barrage of bichromatic abstract art. ‘I thought I saw you coming around!’ bellowed a voice from on high. There’s D-Kane, rocking out from the top of the ladder like an WWE all-star. He threw a few more strokes of paint on a spot he was trying to finish before descending to greet the occasion. He approaches with such a warm candor, dabbing me up without hesitation. ‘Come on now!’ He would say with a soft voice, but steady as the wall he was adorning. Sincerely, any reservations I had about this experience had at this point completely evaporated. There was such a kindness about his presentation that disarmed any trepidations. It brought me back to why I wanted to set this up in the first place.
After an evening of shooting last summer, MYLO and I planned to cool down at Casa Del Barco—a perennial experience for anyone who has ever lived in Richmond. However, as we crossed the floodwall into the canal, we quickly discovered that the universe had other plans. Hundreds of people flowed through the cobblestone walkways and into the shell-like ruins of an old hydroelectric power plant.
Scores of people lined up behind a thin yellow line of tape to stand and marvel at a row of muralists casting their paint onto the walls. It was the RVA Street Art Festival, and for its 10th anniversary, the space was determined to house new exhibitions. One of the first images that caught my eye was a piece composed strictly in black and white. It featured circular shapes that overlapped; at those intersections, the colors would inverse. This variegated collision of contrast immediately drew us in; its presence was undeniable.
Organizers of the event encouraged us to go behind the scenes to document the spectacle. We navigated through various artists, capturing their endeavors on an unapologetic canvas. MYLO eventually met Street Art legend Hamilton Glass, who would later collaborate in the RVA Community Makers. The video work that Myles Brown produced for this hallmark annual event for Black History Month eventually earned him a spot in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Coincidentally, D-Kane recalls his work being featured in that very same museum as a breakthrough moment in his career. The honors of such an accolade are hard to imagine, but it was a significant milestone nonetheless.
As the evening went on, we found ourselves gravitating back to that original piece that had first drawn us in. The person responsible wore all white, topped with a bucket hat speckled with paint stains. He was thrilled to be here; apparently, hundreds of artists had submitted applications to participate. Dathan Kane’s name had been selected among a handful of skillful practitioners.
We discussed how he maximizes space to create the effects in his work. His section was a building adjacent to the ruins, its cube-like shape accentuating the dynamic intricacies of D-Kane’s art as it wrapped around the edges of the structure. To be honest, much of my memory fades in the haze of the experience. What lingers is the feeling of meeting an authentic person who not only demonstrated prowess in a world I’d only dreamed of but also welcomed us as generous hosts. His gratitude for our documentation was palpable, and it motivated me to maintain a connection with this wonderful human being. When I started working on Penrose Pictures, I talked to him about doing a shoot, and he readily agreed. When I transitioned to Penrose Papers, it seemed instinctive that someone this noteworthy should have their story proliferated as much as possible.
Ten years ago, Dathan had a degree from Virginia State in hand and was ready to take the world by storm. His first piece, he recalls, was behind an art store near some train tracks in Newport News, a place he frequented. He knew it would probably get tagged over, but he felt compelled to make his mark. From the moment he gripped that bucket of paint, he never looked back. Flash forward to the present day, and D-Kane’s art is going global. Original pieces have been sold to Seattle, LA, Miami, Baltimore, Germany, France, China, and beyond. His medium isn’t restricted to walls and canvas, either. This guy does merch: coffee bags, beer cans, semi-trucks; he even landed a deal with White Claw to design surfboards and skate decks for Something In The Water. His brand recognition is a clear strength of his art form, but this isn’t merely a clout chase or a cash grab. The whole reason D-Kane was even here was to bring something transformative to an underserved community. He put forth days of work worth thousands to bring something special to an unexpected canvas. “It allows people to see art who normally wouldn’t go to a museum; it allows them to feel something they normally wouldn’t.” This isn’t a one-off project, either. D-Kane finds just as much purpose in serving local communities through his art form. This extends as far as emblazoning his signature aesthetic on a refrigerator to supply healthy, free food to the surrounding community. In many ways, for every wall Dathan builds upon, he tears another down.
When I look at D-Kane’s art, I see a chaotic rift in the space-time continuum, formed by eternal skirmishes between yin and yang. The color selection is definitive; its distinction between two sides is absolute. Yet, peace and chaos are two sides of the same coin—a never-ending battle that plays out in 2D as various curves and lines compete for representation. In a world of colors, the duality feels almost confrontational in its polarity. On top of that, its asymmetrical pattern, in an almost unpredictable fashion, offers a borderline psychedelic experience of falling into the landscape. “It’s the duality of life,” Dathan began. “It shows the back and forth of life and the things we go through. Life is about how we respond to it.” The illustration is unmistakable:
Dr. Seuss served up green eggs and ham so that D-Kane could lay out a buffet in black and white.
This method clearly isn’t accidental and speaks to so much of life beyond our personal experiences. We see a lot of societal discourse reduced to a binary format—everything from politics to gender, even data, prefers 1s and 0s. But life finds the best version of itself when it aspires to go beyond two sides. While it’s easy to lose yourself in the complexities of Dathan’s art, my favorite look is the first one. When you see this visually enigmatic and bold presentation amidst a vivid scene, it adds a tertiary layer to the effect of his art: the contrast between the piece and its environment. It serves as a salient reminder that, as much as we try to confine ourselves to a single plane—or even this paper—we live in three dimensions. Despite scrolling endlessly through posts of content in a flat format, the thoughts we form around that give depth and definition to our perceptions.
Like most of us, Kane accepts that he is human and shares in the struggles of the creative process. He talked about grappling with imposter syndrome and how it can limit his ability. His personal remedies for these ailments include talking to his parents as a source of encouragement and revisiting older projects to find a source of pride. I know that feeling of embattlement all too well; very often, outside of composing this content, I find myself questioning the path I’ve curated. I’m happy with it, but I still ask, “Is it good?” Even Dathan acknowledged that you need internal validation before anything else. “If you’re consistent, you can convey what you’re trying to say, and that will resonate with others. It may not even matter, but it’s something that wasn’t there before. It’s brought to life,” he said. When I asked him who he was without the brush, there was a longer pause before he responded. Almost unconsciously, he answered, “A hard-working person who operates with humility and integrity. That’s the best way I can describe myself from the heart.” D-Kane’s long-term vision is as simple as it is monumental: to keep doing this for as long as he can.
I asked D-Kane what doing a project in Jackson Ward meant to him. “It’s everything; this wall has history,” he continued. “You know, to this community, their corner store is one of the main places they go. Some people grew up here; some of them have been doing this for years. So to have something added to it, and give it more life—people really feel that.” That fact was verified on more than one occasion as local residents came out to praise the undertaking. “Talk that talk, man! What you do is real; keep going,” someone would shout with conviction as D-Kane humbly thanked him and shared a moment of appreciation with those around him. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, a true act of service to their space. A couple of ladies chided him for being “big-time” while having his picture taken. He’d give a polite smile, doing his best to keep his foot forward for the shoot. Yet his candor was the hero of this experience, and the humanism exchanged in each interaction with locals made the photographs feel like more than just images.
It’s a beautiful thing, having the privilege to witness such an unspoken bond between the artist and the world around them. A brief, soft gaze at the landscape evoked many different feelings. I looked at how the corner store stood solitary on a street that faced open air, almost abruptly given the urban layout. And that thin line of fencing, doing its best to withstand the rise of nature, also demarcated this section from the leviathan roadway. Across the way stand churches, row homes, and museums. I’m reminded that, in another lens, D-Kane’s commission sits at the edge of an insidious gash.
If you just came here for the feel-good story of a muralist connecting with residents over his profound street art, then this is your stop. And a conformist version of history would appreciate it if you did so. However, Dathan told me he chose the color palette and design for his work so that you can’t ignore it. He spoke of the provenance of art, stating that the context of the work—its setting and how it came to be—matters. In reverence of that, we can talk about why this mural matters beyond lines and shapes. We can discuss what it means for the land on which we stand.
Arguably, one of the most under-acknowledged segments of Richmond’s history is the full account of Jackson Ward. Now lauded for its comeback in the modern era, there is unfortunately seldom reference to the obstacles this mythic section of the city has had to overcome.
Once heralded as the Black Wall Street of America, Jackson Ward was both a vibrant and prosperous society in the early 1900s. Groundbreaking figures such as Maggie Walker, the first female bank owner, would go on to become the first woman to charter and serve as president of an American bank. The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company would later become the oldest surviving African-American bank. Leaders like Mrs. Walker helped pave the way for a golden era in Jackson Ward. This defiant success flew in the face of draconian laws that had originally cordoned off neighborhoods by race.
But no achievements this virtuous and inspirational go uncontested. Ultimately, the tides of opulence would recede unnaturally swiftly under the rising of a blood moon. It wouldn’t be as demonstrably egregious as a meteor careening towards this part of town, but the cratering impact would still be seen and felt all the same. Rather, it would be the shadow-like hand of bureaucracy, silently claiming victims one by one. At the behest of the insatiable spirit of progress, Jackson Ward was sacrificed to usher in a degree of convenience. In 1955, this template of a holistic and thriving community was brought to the administrative altar in the name of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, the present-day I-95/I-64 corridor through RVA. It was a wide strip of asphalt that would enable easier commuting between the two metropolitans.
The process was as sophisticated as it was barbaric: systematically condemn homes, businesses, and mixed-use properties; demolish said structures; and then rezone to make way for the new construction project. Building by building, block by block, a large swath of land was excavated to create the passage of road around the city. This ran directly through the center of Jackson Ward, effectively bisecting the once-fabled community. It wasn’t just brick and mortar torn down, but the memories, stories, and aspirations of so many that were functionally vacated. The travesty of a history dismantled would become another byproduct of this seemingly ritualistic business venture. Three years was all it took to annihilate over half a century of prestigious advancements and open a turnpike. What was once the heart of a cherished homeland for so many now stood as a gulf of emptiness.
It would take decades more for the area to revitalize. New businesses would lay the bedrock for commerce, but a revival is nothing without the return of its spirit. Nonprofits like the JXN Project render a full account of the area through a process of research-based, reparative historic preservation. All the while, talented visionaries like Dathan infuse new life into these surviving chiseled walls. It cannot be overstated that cobbling together a better tomorrow for Jackson Ward is a story of plight and perseverance. Observing D-Kane’s mural, I’m reminded of new growth permeating deforested lands. This house, perched above the infamous laceration, finds a new page in an arc of redemption. The paint tells a story of someone going beyond convention to create some of the most visually striking murals around. That purposeful contrast exhibited serves as a language about our differences, and it’s through this very same mode that we can begin to see similarities as well.
This epic construct isn’t hidden from public view; to the contrary, it’s readily visible from I-95 South. Maybe you’re like me and groan obnoxiously when traffic backs up to or from work. While you’re sitting there, you look up and notice a chaotic melee of amorphous circles rising from the side of a building on a hillside. If you’ve read this, it’s no longer just some street art eye candy to post on Instagram. You feel the solemn shoutout to those whose entire livelihoods were force-fed to create this very future. Just as Jackson Ward’s achievements were boomeranged upon them, so too can our memory recall the mechanisms of the trap door that opened up underneath them. Every day as we go to work, D-Kane’s installation serves as that vigilant reminder. On this hill lives a people of great resiliency—a homegrown odyssey playing out over a hundred years. And their assiduous tenacity to not only endure but also to generate beauty, love, and compassion should not go unnoticed.
We’re all moving forward—maybe not at the same pace—but even sitting still in some ways is going backward. On this road, Dathan Kane is in a lane of his own: fueled by paint, driven by the brush. The engine propelling him features some of the lowest emissions known to humanity: trauma-neutral. Taking on the site of a deep wound, his ability ratifies its significance through unparalleled artistry.
There are no U-turns in history; our path is equally defined by the company kept along the way and those who have been left behind. To learn this is to honor everyone who has made this moment possible. And as we move forward, we can only ask ourselves: Where is next, and how will we all choose to arrive.