Cedric “VISE1” Douglas is tall. His physical presence, already hard to miss, is amplified by his presence, that invisible thing a person like him has that makes people pay attention. His outfit today—beige khakis, a dark blue denim vest over a red and blue plaid button-up, a red hat with the flat bill flipped up (and the logo of his project, Street Memorials, printed on it in white), glasses with black rectangular frames, thick grey socks with black New Balance sneakers, and two chunky metal rings—is color-coordinated and somewhere in between youth and maturity, complete with a septum piercing that suggests the forty-year-old’s appreciation for youthful rebellion.
As Emerson College’s new artist-in-residence, Douglas is about to embark on his Street Memorials project. “Being a street artist and coming from that background, I see the streets in a different way,” says Douglas. The project remixes common street icons to deepen and change their meanings. Those printed tags you’ve seen around campus declaring the names of victims of police brutality—Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, and Walter Scott, among others—are a big component of his project. Later, with the help of student volunteers, he will hand out roses memorializing police brutality victims, including a note with a photo of the victim, their name, birth and death dates, and a short paragraph or two describing their life. “People sell roses on the streets - [I’m] taking that and making that have new meaning.”
The project also includes a projection component, which he will work on in conjunction with Assistant Professor Paul Turano’s public art and projections course. Douglas plans to install an adhesive image in the shape of a human body, then project the heads of different victims of police brutality onto the figure.
Although he’s concerned with many community issues, police brutality seems to be the injustice Douglas is most passionate about. “There’s the whole [debate]: should you go to jail, should you get the death penalty? The police are making that decision in the streets. Kill,” says Douglas. “They’re like the justice system. It’s crazy. They’re making those decisions for us.”
Douglas first connected with Emerson after hosting a tour around his neighborhood as part of the Americans for the Arts conference. He had created signs, modeled in the style of street signs, memorializing first his uncle, Danny Edwards, after his untimely death, and then Odin Lloyd, a neighbor who was shot and killed. Lloyd’s murder made the news because Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez was convicted of the crime, so when Lloyd’s family asked Douglas to make a sign for him, it drew attention.
“When I did the tour of the signs on the street where I grew up, there was a group of people, and in that group was one of the professors from this school,” says Douglas. That professor was Cher Knight, and after a successful visit to her class, Knight knew the relationship needed to grow. “That’s how I ended up here, doing this, which is related with the memorial, and it’s a continuation of it.” In fact, on the day we met, Douglas had just returned from putting up another in his series of street signs, a sign in honor of Terrence Coleman. “I installed one of these street signs at the house where he was killed. On the building,” says Douglas. “It’s a memorial.”
In a too-short roller chair in the Iwasaki Library coLab, knees reaching the table, Douglas is absorbed in one of what his stepfather, David Bailey, calls “CED talks”: lengthy out-loud musings about art, society, life, and everything in between. His voice travels easily through the quiet room, and his hands are in constant motion to accentuate his words. Douglas’ talks are often enlightening not just for the listener, but for Douglas himself, who is always learning and coming to new realizations. But they are talks, not conversations: “Even if you try and ask a question, it’s hard to get it in,” says Bailey.
Perhaps Douglas is making up for lost time; as a child, he was quiet and somewhat withdrawn, often electing to stay in the car during family outings and showing a reluctance towards meeting new people. Not so today. “One of the things that I love doing is talking to strangers,” says Douglas. “And what I realized, when you have conversations with people, is that there’s the sixth degree of separation that always happens, where they know someone that I know that knows a family member. They might even be related somehow. Not always, but you find how much commonality you have with people when you start talking. And then you appreciate people more—or not.”
Douglas is a lifelong learner; he loves self-help books and motivational youtube videos. It’s fitting that he also loves to play chess, a thoughtful activity that requires strategy and planning, much like his art projects do. He’s a bit of a hoarder, keeping every memento and every sketch that could turn into art. He has a binder full of old plans and sketches, neatly tucked into plastic page protectors.
His desire to connect informs his work and it’s at the core of all his projects. Douglas believes in building bridges, in community, in communication. Part of this comes from the way he was raised. Until the age of six or seven, he lived with his mother, grandmother, and many aunts and uncles in Dorchester—his grandmother had thirteen children. There, he was part of a large family unit in a diverse neighborhood. Douglas himself is of Jamaican descent, and his friends and classmates were mostly Black and Latinx, from various cultural backgrounds. In third grade, his mother married Bailey and the family moved to Quincy.
Life in Quincy was very different. At the time, it was a majority-white town, and Douglas says he and his brother may have been the only black kids at his school. Still, he says he was exposed to new cultures there, too. He often went back to visit Dorchester, becoming especially close with his uncle Danny, only a year his senior, who got him interested in art and graffiti. “Graffiti was the first thing that jolted me to think and see the world creatively,” says Douglas. “It all goes back to my uncle, who taught me how to do what I’m doing, making it my life.”
VISE1 is Douglas’ current graffiti name (his first was “Finesse”), and although it originally indicated a guilty addiction to graffiti art, he says that today it stands for “Visually Intercepting Society’s Emotions.” He spent the nineties learning many of the tenets of graphic design—composition, balance, space, and typography—through his graffiti art. After studying design in college, Douglas graduated to working on larger-scale projects, primarily focusing on local Boston communities.
“A lot of the work I do is social intervention work that is making people look at society in a different way and see the things that are not just,” he says. He wants to make people think, and more importantly, to make people care. “Success, for me, for a project, is if it’s impactful.”
As Street Memorials has altered the landscape of Emerson’s campus, it’s now up to students to pay attention, engage, and carry that impact into action.
Photo by: Spencer Brown