One day this June, a military veteran looked down at the letter she painted — on the main street of the city where she grew up, in the country she served — and she saw skid marks.
At some point in between the day she joined 20 other artists to paint “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in big and bright letters on South Tryon Street, someone with a vehicle spun tires across the message.
Dari Calamari painted the R in that mural. The last letter. The bookend. The period. The send off. The benediction. It’s one of the few letters in the phrase — along with the B and the A — that has an island of blank space in the middle of it. So she had an idea for it. She’d do a gradient, going from orange to red, and make it look like sunset. Or sunrise. You pick.
She spent 12 hours creating it on a Tuesday in June, and by Thursday someone had already defaced it. Other artists were furious. People around the city posted frustration on social media. They saw it as a sign of white supremacy, or a reminder that Charlotte can’t have nice things.
Dari Calamari saw magic.
“If you are an open channel and open vessel for the magic to happen, then you become magical. We’re all magical, but not everybody is aware of that,” she says. “People treat each other like this because they don’t really love themselves, don’t know themselves. So then they let the world tell them who they might be. And some people just angry and figuring that out.”
Dari talks like this. She smiles because she believes it makes people smile back. She tells people they have superpowers, because she believes she has them, too.
About a decade ago, Dari wasn’t a practicing artist. She was at the barbershop, having her dreadlocks removed, as she went off to boot camp. She served in the Air Force for four years, mostly working overnight office shifts on tech security. She was there, in her office, in 2012 when she watched the Black Lives Matter movement begin after the killing of Trayvon Martin. She was there for Michael Brown, and she was through the hot summer of 2016, watching reports of protests in Charlotte.
When she finished her service, she looked out at the world and decided she wanted a different life than the one the military offered her. She wanted to return to art. She wanted to smile and have people smile back. It’s the purest civilian salute, after all. The military had been good for her, she says, but now she wanted to think about possibilities instead of limitations.
Looking down at those skid marks that first week in June, she saw an opportunity. The city called the artists back that Sunday to paint it again, and this time they said they’d block off the street afterward.
What an opportunity, Dari thought.
“Not only did I get to do it once, and it was amazing,” she says. “But shout out to whoever ran over it, because now I got to do it twice.”
The day I meet Dari in late June — at her “R,” of course — it’s already been an intense summer.
The coronavirus numbers are showing troubling trends. The governor’s just announced that we won’t be moving to phase three of reopening as planned. Some gyms and bars are opening up anyway — mostly out of necessity, but it feels like a middle finger anyway. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s streets have seen weeks upon weeks of protests following the police officer’s murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. As I stood at that R, waiting on Dari, I’ve seen anger, teargas, flash bangs, arguments over face coverings, people losing jobs, homelessness become an epidemic, and hateful words over reopening.
Then, here comes Dari Calamari, skipping down Tryon Street.
She holds her arms out as she tries balance on the sidewalk’s edge. People float in and out around her to take pictures of the mural she helped create, but Dari keeps moving forward, as if on a balance beam only she can see.
“I think I’ve always known I was different but I didn’t know how to describe it. As a kid I felt like I was living not like other people,” she says. “I’m always living life as if I’m in a video game, and I’m always looking for the signs.”
Calamari isn’t her real last name, but it’s her artist name, and an artist like her sets her own rules.
As a kid, she wasn’t one to break rules, but one to question them. She never understood barriers. She started her art with coloring books. She went to Butler High in the 2000s. At the time the school was building a powerful football program that would eventually unseat east-side rival Independence as the best in the state. There was no bigger game in the Charlotte area during that decade than a Butler-Independence game.
Dari spent her Friday nights making art. She had a vision for her life: She wanted to be an artist and a teacher, but not an art teacher.
She went to UNC Charlotte, and was in class one day when a guest artist visited. His name was John Hairston Jr., a Black man and Charlotte native.
“I’d never met another Black artist in real life,” Dari says now.
After college, Dari did the thing she said she didn’t want to do: She went to Hough High and became an art teacher. She loved talking art with students, hated dealing with parents and paperwork. She knew that if she stayed, she’d never actually become an artist. She needed a savings account with some money in it to start.
In 2012, the woman who walks with her arms out to keep her balance joined the Air Force. She put some sketchbooks in a backpack and went off to basic training.
It’s funny, I say to her, to think of Dari Calamari, the young girl who hated barriers and always questioned the rules, joining the military, where rules are everything.
“You’re telling me?” she says, laughing.
The hardest part was getting rid of the dreadlocks she’d spent a lifetime growing. But those were, in fact, the rules.
Dari finished basic training in San Antonio, Texas. She stayed there to finish tech school, learning about cybersecurity. Then the Air Force moved her to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia.
She had a cubicle job there in a high-security intelligence building. She couldn’t even bring her phone in to work. But she could bring those sketchbooks. She’d work the night shift, monitoring for viruses and whatever top-secret tech stuff people monitor behind those walls (she still won’t say). She was 25 then, old for a new member of the military. She met people from all over the country. Some, she said, had never met a person of color before meeting her.
There in her top-secret office, the televisions were always on to the news. She never quite understood that, why they’d let reports of trouble all over the world be piped into the lives of people who couldn’t leave the room. But she watched them anyway.
She was at her desk on the overnight shift in the spring of 2012 when she saw the story of how a teenager in Florida named Trayvon Martin had been killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator. She watched the protests build, and she heard them shouting the chant she hadn’t heard before: “Black Lives Matter.”
She left the military after four years in 2016. As she re-entered civilian life, she took a few classes, just on stuff that interested her: Spanish, African-American Studies, and gender and sexuality. She took a few trips, to Jamaica and Germany and, for her 30th birthday in 2017, to Brazil.
She was in Rio, she says, when she decided it was time to make art “for real.”
“I just want to paint the whole world,” she says now. “All of the streets should be painted. All the walls.”
She has a mural at 1430 South Mint Street in South End. There’s a painting not by her but of her on Lyon Street out on Central Avenue. She did a smaller mural in the hallway of the Advent Coworking building on Louise Avenue.
In early June, while the Black Lives Matter movement was taking over the country in big cities and small towns, Dari found herself walking on the greenway, when she came upon a small piece of public art — a colorful rug, painted on the path.
She’d never painted on the ground. She wondered how it would work, especially spray paint. How it would change the look of the paint to have the can turned down to the pavement. Then she went about her day.
That same week, she got an email. The city wanted to paint Black Lives Matter on South Tryon Street. It wanted 16 individual artists or art studios to each take a letter. And she was one of them. She’d be painting the ground.
She showed up with no plan in mind. She says her work is intuitive. But when she looked over at the man who was painting the E next to her R, she laughed. It was John Hairston, the man who came to her class at UNC Charlotte several years ago, the first Black artist she’d met in person.
For someone who believes that what you see is a reflection of who you are, it was more than a coincidence.
“We’re all exchanging energy,” she says. “The energy you put out is what you get back and that’s how you end up in this loop like, Oh, I can’t believe this happened to me. It’s part of the cycle.”
Her art is sort of like that. She loved geometry as a kid, so she paints with geometric shapes and relationships in mind. She’s also a huge fan of numbers and symmetry. She turned 33 last month. She’s dissected the number over and over, how wild it is that your age is only two of the same number every 11 years, how it’s the age when Jesus died on the cross, and how crosses are what the KKK (three letters) burn to intimidate Black people.
When you step inside her mind, you understand how to step inside her art. She wants you to experience it while living in it.
Back at the R, a mother with three children is circling the letter. Dari’s standing near the sidewalk, telling me the story of how she chose the colors and scheme.
The little girl has her arm in a sling. She follows Dari with her eyes. But each time Dari looks at her, the little girl looks away, embarrassed and unsure.
Dari remembers what it was like to be a little girl who’d never met a Black artist. She remembers what it was like the first time she met John Hairston.
I catch the mother’s eyes, and she points at Dari: “Is she the artist?”
I nod and Dari walks toward them. The little girl’s eyes grow wide.
“Want to take a picture?” Dari says.
“Where?” the girl says.
“Come right here. Stand inside it.”
The little girl and her brothers step to the blank space in the R or the center of the sun, depending on how you see things.
The mother stands back and takes a few pictures. Dari says a few words to the little girl before they walk away.
Then Dari Calamari says to me, “She’ll be looking for the magic now.”