Ragda Noah
Ragda Noah Credit: Elizabeth Tuten

Tarek Kouddous had 48 hours to find artists willing to paint murals on plywood in downtown D.C. Ted Brownfield of SJG Properties had asked him to fill the blank space on two buildings at 15th and H streets NW before the Saturday, June 6, protests. Kouddous mobilized quickly, tapping into his network to find available local artists, and the Radical Plywood project was born. The first mural went up at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, as did a round of flyers along protest routes and a freshly minted Instagram account calling for artist submissions for additional murals. Eight days and 51 submissions later, 12 artists have painted 14 plywood murals around the District.

Kouddous has called D.C. home for seven years, moving from Cairo, Egypt, to attend undergrad at George Washington University. After graduating in 2017, he worked as a federal emergency management consultant for FEMA. Feeling unfulfilled, he left in November 2019, and did some soul searching in Cairo. He returned to the District in January of this year and threw himself into his community, serving on the alcohol policy committee of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, the Logan Circle Community Association’s beautification committee, and Logan Circle Main Street under District Bridges. 

He was soon leading Logan Circle Main Street’s Let’s Paint the Streets mural initiative, working out permitting to paint public utility boxes and organizing local artists. At the same time, Kouddous was forming Radical Empathy, an events and activations startup targeting underutilized and vacant spaces around the District. “It’s turning space into place,” Kouddous explains. “Spaces you don’t have a relationship with, you walk right by them, whereas places, you have a sense of belonging, it vitalizes your sense of hyper-local belonging.” Open areas and blank spaces around his Logan Circle neighborhood had caught his eye, but potential canvases multiplied exponentially across the city during the first week of June as businesses boarded up their storefronts amid protests against anti-black racism and police brutality. 

When City Paper caught up with Kouddous, he was zipping among mural sites in Logan Circle and Dupont on a Capital Bikeshare bicycle, speaking to store owners and ensuring artists had what they needed to create murals on boarded-up windows and storefronts. He pays Radical Plywood artists a $250 stipend to cover supplies, but he hopes to offer further compensation by eventually auctioning off the painted plywood panels. Brownfield, nonprofit visual arts organization Transformer, and District Bridges have funded the initiative thus far. 

Silver Spring-based graphic designer and illustrator Ragda Noah had never painted a mural before, but she submitted her series honoring victims of racist violence when a co-worker tagged her in the call for art on Radical Empathy’s Instagram. A few days later, she was freehand painting her digital illustration of George Floyd and his last words on the Meeps Vintage storefront on 18th Street NW. “These are real people and these are their last words,” Noah says of her design. “People should know their names and their stories—anything to spread awareness and be a voice for people who can’t have their voices heard.” 

Artist Musah Swallah painted symbols from his native Ghana and the face of a young black woman for Stoney’s on P Street NW. The bar and restaurant had taken down their boards, but put them back up to have artwork made. A mutual friend connected Kouddous and Swallah, who has been in the U.S. for three years. “D.C. has been wonderful,” Swallah, a Northeast resident, says. “It’s what I am looking for as an artist and as an African. I can see people who look like me, I don’t feel left out in the city. As an artist, all I can do is use my artwork to communicate with other people, get my voice out.” 

Fairfax native and artist Tim Cunningham was connected to Kouddous through his network of artists. His mandala on the front of Noah One Grooming, also on P Street NW, radiates out around the Black Lives Matter fist symbol. He was assisted by 8-year-old Fort Totten resident Orly Raskin, whose mom, Sarah Raskin, found Radical Empathy on Instagram. Using the interactive online map where Radical Plywood shares its mural locations, the Raskins found Cunningham’s board, and the spectators soon turned into participants.

When artists apply to Radical Plywood, they’re entering Radical Empathy’s artist database for future projects and activations, too. “We ask for a sketch for the Radical Plywood project, but we ask for a list of skills beyond that—dance, theater, rap, even landscaping—because that can feed into other ‘Radical Hustles,’” Kouddous says. He hopes to open farmers markets, pop-up activations, and open-air theater and art shows under the Radical Empathy umbrella in the future. 

For now, artists can still apply to paint a plywood mural by emailing a mural sketch, other examples of work, and three additional skills to change@radicalempathynow.com.