The bland white wall on Independence Avenue was an open invitation to teens to spray paint their garish tags.
By LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
Now the wall is bursting with color and alive with whimsical portraits illustrating the Northeast neighborhoods cultural melting pot.
Its all about enlisting talented young artists to fight young graffiti vandals.
Kansas City officials applauded the debut mural Tuesday in what they said was an innovative effort to defeat taggers at their own game.
Its awesome. Its amazing, said Kyle Tran, whose wife, Leann Nguyen, owns the building at the corner of Independence and Norton avenues. Right now the building is vacant, but Tran said the couple hope to lease it soon, and the mural can only help.
Councilman Scott Wagner said this mural should be the first of many, to deter graffiti while simultaneously giving youths a creative outlet to produce inspiring public art.
Graffiti vandalism is a huge problem not just in the old Northeast area but also in the Crossroads, on the West Side and throughout the city. Wagner estimated it costs businesses several million dollars in damage, not to mention the inconvenience of constantly having to clean and repaint walls, windows and utility boxes.
The city already has started training neighborhood leaders in graffiti removal and provides chemicals, power washers and paint to help the cause. But city officials and their community partners now see the mural program as another effective strategy.
Its worked in other cities, especially Philadelphia, which launched its nonprofit mural program as an anti-graffiti initiative in 1984 and now has more than 3,600 murals. With annual funding in excess of $5 million, it engages 1,500 of Philadelphias at-risk youth every year to explore their artistic talents. St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles also have extensive mural arts organizations.
Wyandotte County also has had a program the last three years in which high school students paint murals on either side of an alley that spans several blocks in the Cathedral Neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan. Residents have praised those murals, but theyre not quite the scale of the latest Kansas City mural, nor are they on such a busy, prominent business thoroughfare.
Supporters hope Kansas Citys program will grow and thrive, but it admittedly started off very small and had its share of early stumbles.
The program started this spring with a $10,000 donation from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a commitment from the Mattie Rhodes Center to recruit the youths.
John J.T. Daniels, a professional artist and youth mentor at Mattie Rhodes, said he received only a few applications from youths interested in the program, even though they would be paid for their work. But he found the right team in Megan Dux, 18, and Sergio Ortiz Vieyra, 20.
Daniels said he advised the students, but they created the design and did most of the work.
Dux, now a freshman at Truman State University, wants to be a zookeeper but said shes studied art for years and loves it as an avocation. She had never painted anything near as large as a 20-foot-by-40-foot wall, but it was a great learning experience.
I learned how to believe in myself, she said. It was different than my own style. I loved the bright colors we used.
Because of an accident, Ortiz Vieyra cant speak, but Dux said that didnt stop him from communicating his ideas for the mural. He drew as much as he could draw. He pointed. It wasnt that difficult, she said.
Just as the team was getting ready to start the mural, their paint and supplies were all stolen from a nearby storage area. That was both discouraging and enlightening, Dux said.
I thought it was bad luck, she said. But an $800 donation from UMB Bank put the program back in business. That community support helped keep them going.
We didnt quit, she said.
As they were painting, they received lots of neighborhood encouragement. People shopping at the mini-mart across the street would stop and say how much they liked it. Homeless people would sit and watch them work. Only once, Dux said, did an older woman say she didnt understand the concept of painting pictures on walls, and she wished people would stop it.
For Daniels, the professional, it was a totally new experience. Hes used to showing his work in a gallery, where he has to recruit the audience. In this case, the audience came to him right on the street.
He was most gratified when people would point to themselves and to the portraits. People see themselves in the mural, Daniels said. Thats what I was looking for.
This is certainly not the only mural in town, and not even the first mural to deter graffiti, but its usually done by adults.
The Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has found artwork to be a proven deterrent.
Once theres artwork up, youre not seeing the tags, said chamber Director Rebecca Koop. Its pretty effective when you have a building that had become a billboard for tagging and graffiti.
In one particularly creative example, residents painted the image of playing cards (king, queen, jack and numbered cards) on the wood covering 38 windows of an abandoned red-brick apartment building at 700 Indiana Ave. It gives a cheerful gallery appearance to what might otherwise be a depressing, dangerous building, and its kept graffiti off the buildings lower levels, Koop said.
Outdoor murals also have transformed several alleyways and buildings in the vicinity of 17th and 18th streets, Oak to Locust in the Crossroads, said Lee Burgess, co-owner of the Kultured Chameleon Art Gallery, 1739 Oak Street, which focuses on street-style art.
Burgess said the Crossroads outdoor murals get left alone by graffiti artists. Theres a level of respect, he said.
Alisha Gambino, director of youth and young adult services for Mattie Rhodes and herself a mural artist hopes the success of the Independence Avenue mural launches a major trend in Kansas City. She knows of other youths at Mattie Rhodes whose artistic talents could be put to use, as well as other youths in the community.
Wagner and Porter Arneill, public art administrator for Kansas City municipal government, agreed. They said supporters will use this winter to reach out to more partners, raise money and build for next year.
This is just one stop in a big direction of huge opportunities, Arneill said.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.