When Shawn Dunwoody spots a cluster of people gathered in northeast Rochester, he walks up to them, places a stencil on the sidewalk, and starts spray painting.

He positions the Rochester Flower City logo, which he sprays bright pink, followed by a life-size skeleton, painted bone white. When he lifts the stencils, the Rochester logo is positioned as the heart within the skeleton.

He draws attention as he works, and that’s exactly what he intends.

“Most people are like, ‘Oh, what is that? What are you doing? Are you legal?'” he said.

He explains that yes, the city is on board. In fact, he is helping spread the word that groups shouldn’t be gathering — that even without showing symptoms, they could spread the coronavirus to people like their own grandparents.

Dunwoody is a part of an effort called “Protect Your Circle,” spearheaded by the city of Rochester. In March, the city recognized that COVID-19 had the potential to disproportionately afflict and kill black and brown residents in the city, so it reached out to content creators, digital marketers and online influencers to help drive home the messages to stay at home and socially distance.

A passing pedestrian (left) talks to Shawn Dunwoody (right) as he works on a spray-painted mural on the sidewalk in front of World Wide News on St. Paul Street on April 28, 2020.


While the amount of testing has been insufficient to provide a clear picture, county health data compiled the past weeks seems to indicate that those concerns were borne out. The communication challenge is young people who do not get their information from traditional media.

“The generation that we are trying to reach – they are not on TV,” said Toshman Powell, another content creator and influencer involved with the campaign. Members of Generation Z live on their phones. They get information and share it through their fingertips as they scroll. And that’s a process Dunwoody and Powell are trying to influence — to change behavior and save lives.

Edgy murals have many layers

Dunwoody, 46, lives off Clifford Avenue in a part of northeast Rochester that struggles with poverty and drug activity. After moving away for a time, he returned to the area with the goal of being engaged in the community and being a role model to African-American boys. He has an engaging, outgoing personality well suited to spreading the word about why it’s important to stay home during the pandemic.

Many who know Dunwoody’s work think of him as the “good and positive mural painting guy,” as he encapsulates it.

He has led groups of volunteers to paint the brightly colored murals of inspirational words and phrases that encircle the reading garden behind the downtown library building at 114 South Ave. Another effort painted piano keys and the Flower City logo at the intersection of East Main and Gibbs streets near the Eastman Theatre. He even made a Rochester-based video of the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.”But for this project, the message needed to be edgier and hit harder, he said.

He has flanked ghostly, life-size skeletons with messages like “six feet apart or six feet under,” “protect your circle” and “stay home save lives” written in English and Spanish. He accents the skeletons with items commonly seen at makeshift memorials — a teddy bear, flowers, candles, a liquor bottle.

He has painted his stencils where people congregate — Main Street, Hudson Avenue, Joseph Avenue — and more are in the works. As he works, he hears comments like, “That’s hot. I like that skeleton.” That person takes a picture and shares it on his Instagram account — and that’s the outcome that helps multiply the message.

Rochester artist Shawn Dunwoody paints eye-catching murals with an important message

Shawn Dunwoody is part of a city effort called Protect Your Circle, which is spreading the word to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic. | SHAWN DOWD, @SDOWDPHOTO

Dunwoody’s creations for the multifaceted project also include wheat paste signs on traffic boxes as well as coloring pages that he distributes free of charge at corner stores.

Adding another layer to the messaging, photographer Arturo Hoyte and videographer Rashad A. Scott are documenting Dunwoody as he goes about his work; they will produce a commercial with the key messages.

Dunwoody says, with a laugh, that he appreciates a reason to get out of the house.

“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “It gets me out for a good reason.”

Reporter Tracy Schuhmacher focuses on food from many facets. Send story tips to TracyS@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow.