Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Two men create a memorial to lives taken in city violence

To Michael "MIC" Ta'bon and his friend Lionel Dunbar, the names are a measure of the social health of the city, and painting them on a wall in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia is a way to make sure they are not forgotten.
The men created a mural on Hunting Park Avenue near 19th Street known simply as "the Wall." It has no bold colors, no faces, no scenery - just the 406 names and ages of the homicide victims in Philadelphia last year.

"This," said Ta'bon, "is our memorial, just like the one in Washington, D.C."

Ta'bon, 32, who served time for armed robbery, said he was inspired to combat violence last year after he sang a solo at the funeral of a friend shot to death after a basketball game in North Philadelphia.

A singer and rapper, Ta'bon later wrote and recorded a hip-hop song called "Rest in Peace." In it, amid the crackle of gunshots, Ta'bon pleads, "Do you know who you took from the world, somebody's husband, wife, friend, son? . . . Please stop all the murders."

After penning the song, Ta'bon went to Dunbar, who operates the Time Out Car Wash in a parking lot at the site of the Wall.

"I said, Lionel, I need some help," Ta'bon said.

They got a friend, Tyrone Barge, who operates a construction company, to donate the scaffolding, and supply the paint and some of the painters. Above the names in large print are the words "Rest in Peace." Below that is: "This Mural Is Dedicated to the Families & Friends of 2006 Victims of Violence in the City of Brotherly Love."

"The Wall is the seed we're trying to plant to end the violence," Ta'bon said. "Now what we have to do is solve the problem."

Dunbar said the project cost about $3,500, with much of it donated. "We all did some of the painting," he said, referring to several other friends.

"A lot of people think their [relatives] died in vain," said Dunbar. "This shows that someone cared enough to remember them."

Dunbar said he and Ta'bon gathered the names from The Inquirer and from the office of Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson.

Dunbar said the mural has attracted hundreds of people, especially relatives of the victims.

"People recognize the names and they come and tell stories about the people who died," Dunbar said. "You have 406 stories here. And I've heard over half of them."

The Wall was dedicated Jan. 1 and drew a crowd of about 300. On Valentine's Day, Ta'bon and Dunbar held another vigil, called a "Second Chance to Say Goodbye." At it, friends and relatives of the victims brought stuffed animals, which were posted on a utility pole that stands two stories tall.

"About 150 and counting," Dunbar said of the number of stuffed animals. "People bring them every day."

Dunbar said the names of two men who worked at his car wash, James "Boop" Johnson, 31, and Anthony Lawrence, 36, are on the list.

Ta'bon describes the violence in the city as "a war without a leader. It's every man for himself."

He has had his own experiences with crime and violence.

"I was the definition of a career criminal. This started when I was 12," Ta'bon said. "It's edifying to my spirit to be able to help people with their problems."