Seven years ago, a gunman murdered 49 guests at Pulse, a gay-friendly nightclub in Orlando. Earlier this week, to mark the anniversary, the Orlando Museum of Art unveiled a mural made in honor of the tragedy’s victims.
The 44-foot-long work, titled Inspiration Orlando United, features a sea of faces interspersed with handprints and hearts. It includes portraits of the victims who died in the shooting, as well as portraits of those who were wounded, first responders and grieving family members.
The mural aims “to breathe hope, justice, healing and a passion for peace,” says Michael Pilato, who created the piece along with Yuriy Karabash and Chimene Hurst, in a statement.
Pilato has been painting the mural for years. It’s been on view in several locations, including the Pulse site itself and a middle school where students watched Pilato work, according to the Orlando Sentinel’s Matthew J. Palm. This week, the Orlando Museum of Art displayed the mural and hosted a free community event to reflect on the tragedy.
“It was important to us … to honor the lives that were forever changed and offer a place of solace for our community,” says Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon, curator and interim head of collections and exhibitions at the museum, in a statement. “We hope this event provides an opportunity for heartfelt reflection and inspires unity, support and advocacy.”
The work has been a “labor of love” for Pilato. “It’s something I had to do,” he tells the Orlando Sentinel. “My paintbrush became a weapon, a way to fight back against hate.”
Soon after the shooting, Pilato moved from Pennsylvania to the second floor of an Orlando office building and started work on the mural, reported Orlando magazine’s Michael McLeod in 2017. He met with survivors and those who lost loved ones, listening to their stories and adding portraits to the piece.
The mural also features imagery related to similar tragedies, including a portrait of the 10-year-old artist Alithia Ramirez, who died in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last year. The state bird of Colorado and five flowers represent the victims murdered in the 2022 shooting at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs.
During the pandemic, the painting went into storage—and as Pilato’s salary ran thin, leaving him unable to pay the storage fees, the artwork was almost confiscated. Hurst worked with community members to rent a U-Haul and move the mural; Pilato sold the boat he was living in and moved into Orlando’s Arte Mundial Museum Gallery, where he continued to work on the piece, according to the Orlando Sentinel. When the gallery lost its lease, Pilato was forced to move again to Faith Arts Village Orlando.
Hoping to help the community heal, Pilato is still working on the piece. He has been adding to it even as it hangs in the Orlando Museum of Art’s rotunda.
“It’s called a ‘living mural,’” he tells the Orlando Sentinel. “We go back and add to it as we learn more stories.”
Seeing the mural at the museum has been a moving experience, Pilato adds. Hundreds of visitors have toured this week, and survivors and families of those who died at Pulse have visited every day.