Stonewall Was A RIOT: Gran Fury’s Activism Through Art

By: Erin Hayes

In 2015, Pride Month was charged with joyful energy in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Flags reading “Love is Love” waved in the summer heat and people marched in shirts that proudly declared “Love wins!”

But as we observe the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it’s important to remember that we’re not just fighting for the right to love. We’re also fighting for the right to exist.

It’s fitting then that, on June 2, the RIOT mural was unveiled by artist collective Gran Fury at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. The piece is a 96″ x 96″ recreation of the painting originally created by Gran Fury artist Mark Simpson (d. 1996).

“RIOT calls to mind the battles that the LGBTQ community has fought over the past 50 years, including those it still fights today,” said Glennda Testone, the executive director of The Center, in an interview with The Body, an HIV/AIDS Resource.

“Especially as the eyes of the world turn to New York for WorldPride, this is a vital reminder that our struggle to secure equity and justice for all within our community is far from over,” said Testone.

Gran Fury was an AIDS activist artist collective created in 1988 by 11 artists. Members included Amy Heard, Marlene McCarty, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, Richard Elovich, Avram Finkelstein, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, and the late Mark Simpson.

Gran Fury described themselves as a band of individuals united in anger who were dedicated to using art to end the AIDS crisis. 

The group used powerful historical images to create posters, billboards, stickers, T-shirts, photographs, and postcards for provocative and informative political public projects.

The goal of Gran Fury was to circulate information about AIDS to the masses, and circulate they did. Some of the most iconic LGBTQ art pieces came from Gran Fury including SILENCE = DEATH, Let The Record Show, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do,” and Venice Biennale (the “Pope Piece”). All the Gran Fury artwork is in the public domain and can be found on

Gran Fury placed their art in non-traditional art spaces by using billboards, fliers, and posters. They wanted to push political figures such as Ronald Reagan, then New York Mayor Ed Koch, and John Cardinal O’Connor to address the AIDS pandemic openly in a more practical way with more information provided to the public.

Gran Fury disbanded in 1995 because they felt their art strategies weren’t able to communicate what they needed to about the AIDS crisis. But their artwork has continued to be a source of inspiration for activism.

Before the group disbanded, one of the founding members of Gran Fury, Mark Simpson, painted the RIOT piece as a part of the group’s first overseas exhibition in Germany. Simpson painted the piece in response to an AIDS wallpaper project that was based on Robert Indiana’s LOVE painting.

Avram Finkelstein, in an interview with The Body, said Gran Fury disagreed with the wallpaper project because, without context, it appeared to say that love led to AIDS. The general idea of the RIOT piece, Finkelstein said, was that if love leads to AIDS, then AIDS leads to riot.

Although the original painting, a 6′ x 6′ mural, went missing while it was moved around for exhibitions, the newest mural is even larger at 8 feet and is just as incredible.

RIOT grew out of the AIDS crisis in the late 80s when every gay person in New York felt under attack,” the Gran Fury collective said during the unveiling of the RIOT mural. “Even though antiretroviral therapy that activism pressed for has alleviated the crisis for some people, our battles are not over, even for HIV/AIDS.”“We salute all those in the LGBT community who continue to fight for our rights and equal treatment,” Gran Fury continued. “Stonewall was a RIOT.”

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