When I stare at a wall, I don't expect it to stare back—I'm pretty sure everyone can agree with me.
Yet in Fishtown, when I stare at Molly Crabapple's mural, "No Borders," that is exactly what I see. A black haired woman crowned in monarch butterflies stares defiantly back at me through layers of orange and golds and browns. Eyes solemn, chin slightly raised, she speaks to me as the embodiment of quiet pride. I imagine her with feet firm on the ground and hands on her hips. Whatever life throws at her, she can more than manage. Her gaze tells me this clearer than words ever could.
This being my first trip into Fishtown, I had asked around earlier to gauge what should be expected of the neighborhood. "It's a hipster gentrified area" is what I received in return. I went, arrived, strolled through. Hipster gentrified indeed. The uneven patched–over sidewalks spoke of tougher times, but all I could see now were coffee shops and antique furniture stores, high end beauty salons and quaint restaurants, with the occasional old house sticking out like a sore thumb, awaiting demolishment or reconstruction. Residential areas were single two or three storied buildings, many with flower boxes in front of windows and pastel painted wood. It was beautiful, nice on the eyes, superficial. Behind every chic apartment or glass fronted store was a displaced family and a torn down home.
Here, I think, is where the artist's handiwork hits home. Jennifer Caban, who goes by the pseudonym Molly Crabapple, is not your typical artist activist. At age 17, Crabapple left her home in New York City to travel solo in Morocco, Turkey, and Kurdistan, before returning to attend art school, only to drop out after a year. She later performed as a professional burlesque dancer, modeled as a "naked girl," and used her funds from modeling to mail portfolios to hundreds of art directors, until one from the New York Times called. Crabapple's career as an artist, while far from smooth sailing, further developed through her illustration work at the The Box (a nightclub favored by Wall Street financiers), her contribution to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, and eventually her work as an art journalist for news outlet Vice, for which she was sent to report on Guantanamo Bay and the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed via detailed sketches.
Her life, one of raising eyebrows and turning heads, is reflected in her art. As an inherently populist creator, she has explored issues such as the 2014 refugee crisis and followed the 2016 presidential election. Molly Crabapple has trekked through ISIS plagued territory to report on Syrian refugees, recorded the suffering of immigrants in Abu Dhabi's labor camps, and protested the victimization of sex workers through her artwork. She has speed sketched the story of a Chinese immigrant who despite having lived in America and having built a family of his own through the course of 17 years, was thrown in a detention center due to faulty green card paperwork and denied critically needed medication while there. He died of bone cancer. Crabapple's mural, "No Borders," in which monarch butterflies symbolize immigration due to their annual migration from south to north, is indicative of her view on the injustice of borders, an issue which has long plagued America and Europe, yet to this day remains unresolved.
In Fishtown, the mural takes on even greater meaning. Not only a beacon drawing attention to the hardships of immigration occurring miles away, "No Borders" directs us to the irony of immigration occurring within the very neighborhood it calls home. While the woman and her butterfly crowned hair may stay for years to come, she stares in witness of the countless families displaced due to gentrification. She stares at the high end beauty salons, the pastel wood houses, the chic coffee shops replacing the homes families have left behind. She stares at you, urging you to look past Fishtown's hipster veneer, should you ever get the chance to visit.