Arts & Culture

How Scribe — graffiti artist, hospital artist — has made his mark on Kansas City

KC artist Scribe balances his two artistic worlds

Donald J. Ross, a Kansas City artist who signs his artwork with the name, "Scribe," describes balancing his two artistic endeavors: a staff artist at Children's Mercy Hospital and a street artist who's work appears throughout much of downtown.
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Donald J. Ross, a Kansas City artist who signs his artwork with the name, "Scribe," describes balancing his two artistic endeavors: a staff artist at Children's Mercy Hospital and a street artist who's work appears throughout much of downtown.

Riding around Kansas City with the artist Scribe is more than a little surreal.

That mural of the rhinoceros piloting a catfish-shaped submarine on 39th Street? He painted that.

The animals engaged in a Wu-Tang-style kung fu battle in a Broadway Boulevard alley on the outskirts of Westport? That’s his, too.

And the giant gophers being pelted with bananas off Southwest Boulevard. Yep. Scribe.

But then, as he’s driving and explaining his life in art, a Children’s Mercy Hospital transport ambulance whizzes past. On the side panels, an elephant he drew.

“It’s bizarre to see those go by,” he said. “They’re like giant Hot Wheels. It’s strange to see it in motion.”

Scribe once was just a Midwestern preacher’s kid named Donald Ross. For going on two decades now, his graffiti, murals and artworks have been the tattoos on the skin of Kansas City.

His current daytime gig is staff artist for Children’s Mercy, a job for which he is loved and revered. When people in the hospital meet him for the first time, they smile like his goony cartoon bunnies.

Yet there was a time when he wasn’t so esteemed. As a student, he became persona non grata at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City law enforcement once considered him something of a public nuisance, going so far as to post flyers asking for information about him and his fellow graffiti artists, some of whom were accused of painting public property.

He said he has no shame about those moments and he takes full responsibility for the parts he played, though he is a little reluctant to talk about them.

“I would hate for any of my past to overshadow anything at Children’s Mercy,” he said. “It’s hard enough that they have me, a tattooed weirdo, walking around there. It has to protect itself. And there are parts of me that are challenging.”

Susan Cain, the hospital’s director of facilities planning and design (and Scribe’s boss), laughed at his “weirdo” quote.

“He’s a big guy with a great heart, and everything he does has a purpose,” she said. “I can go to work and I can go home and separate the two pretty easily. What he does is who he is. Sometimes he has to defend what he does, but not much. He has gotten so good at figuring what it is our patients need to see that once (the hospital) decides on the theme, he develops it and everyone loves it.”

So it turns out that Scribe’s most subversive act as an artist is going mainstream.

Touring Children’s Mercy Hospital with the 41-year-old Scribe, two things become abundantly clear.

First: The man has done an incredible amount of work throughout the facility. From the nautical-themed tiled flooring to the multi-level murals of anthropomorphic pinatas, he’s created an environment that’s whimsical for kids and intriguing for adults. Standing in this hospital surrounded by his artwork is like being in the middle of the inevitable bittersweet moment in every Pixar movie.

Secondly: Seemingly everybody in the joint knows him. Patients, doctors, janitors, donors — they all brighten when they see this big bearded guy with tattoos of Bugs Bunny and Finn and Jake.

“One of the positive side effects of what I do is it’s public,” he said. “I’m a fierce fighter for the idea that everyone is on equal footing. It’s pretty obvious that someone who does heart surgery on kids is an incredible person, but the people who are doing janitorial work and working behind the scenes, they make the world go round.”

And when someone at the hospital meets Scribe for the first time — a staffer tells a visitor, “Hey, this is the guy who did all the murals in here” — he takes a moment to talk with each and every one of them.

Nurse Emily Falkenrheh, who transports children in one of the ambulances adorned with Scribe’s animal characters, met him for the first time when we toured the hospital a few weeks ago, and she seemed almost starstruck. She said she’s witnessed first-hand the power his work has on the kids who come to Children’s Mercy via the Scribe-designed ambulances.

“We see it all the time,” she said. “We’ll bring out a hesitant patient who’s afraid, and they’ll see the ambulance and it brings them peace. Oftentimes you’ll see them physically relax. I’ve had kids not shut up about it the whole ride to the hospital.”

Scribe’s mission at Children’s Mercy is to use his artwork to change the hospital experience into something unexpected.

“Some of these kids, unfortunately, have a professional career of coming here,” he said. “I like to imagine a kid sitting there and, whether the walls have a fish theme or something a little funkier, they start really getting inside their head in a different way rather than focusing on the procedure they’re about to go through.”

Whitnee Ice is a college student who currently volunteers at the hospital, but she started out as a patient when she was in eighth grade.

She has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that, in very general terms, loosens connective tissues throughout the body.

“It causes health problems head to toe, so I’ve been to all kinds of clinics,” she said. “If you name it, I’ve probably been in it.”

Over the course of her many visits to the hospital, she’s seen the previously bland and boring hallways transformed by Scribe’s delightfully colorful goofiness.

“The ER downstairs is one of my favorite rooms, because he has a lot of stuff down there,” she said. “The nurses would put PICC (I.V.) lines in and have my stomach pumped, and they tried to make me comfortable and distract me by talking about the stuff on the walls. It was like an ‘I Spy’ game. It helped a lot.”

When Scribe was a kid, his family traveled to London, Israel, California and other places around the globe. His dad is a pastor of a nondenominational church; his mom also serves as a pastor but also works as an assistant to stockbrokers at Merrill Lynch in Boston, where Scribe went to high school. After graduation, he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute to help realize his lifelong dream of a career in art.

His vision: Something that mixed his childhood interest in drawing animals with his love for graffiti and his desire to someday create something for kids. He thought he might one day work as an animator.

His stint at the school didn’t end well. It hardly even began. Confrontations and arguments with school personnel led to an early departure.

“I’ve never hidden that the Art Institute asked me not to come back,” Scribe said.

He was told by another student the next year that his name was invoked at a freshman seminar as the kind of student not to be.

“Actually, the teacher who gave that speech apologized to me several years ago,” Scribe said.

In the 1990s, Scribe served a three-year probation for spray-painting a Brush Creek bridge. His prosecutor: None other than current U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was then the Jackson County prosecutor.

“Claire McCaskill was on the warpath, she was in the paper a lot — launching her political career,” Scribe said. “She decided that all of us guys who did grafitti were gang-banging drug dealers. She didn’t realize — or maybe she did — I was the son of a minister. I had no interest in any of that gang stuff. But I was rebellious. I was a typical PK — preacher’s kid.”

McCaskill didn’t respond directly for comment about Scribe’s case, but a spokesperson with her office in D.C. responded via email: “As the elected prosecutor at that time, when the city had a real problem with the amount of graffiti defacing public property, Claire remembers law enforcement taking it very seriously, and she doesn’t make any apologies about that — but she is very impressed with how he’s putting his extraordinary talents to such good use today.”

Scribe says just a few pieces of his old graffiti can be found around town, in places that aren’t easily accessible or even all that desirable.

“I got to show my son one of them,” he said. “It’s like an alien character from before I was doing my animal stuff. It was down near the West Bottoms. And on the way out, we were chased by a naked lady. That was like sex ed and all kinds of other stuff all wrapped into one.”

Scribe said after the probation and the departure from art school he foundered for a time, but then started doing the large-scale murals in Westport. It was a paying gig, and he said he took some joy in painting in spaces large enough and public enough that all of his detractors would see his work.

The public perception that muralists were just vandals with spray paint didn’t go away, however. He and his painting partner Gear were harassed by passersby when they were painting a mural outside Big Dude’s Music Store on Broadway.

“All day long people would drive by screaming, “[Expletive] you!’” he said. “One guy drove by and threw his sandwich at us.”

Scribe’s murals have since become an iconic part of Kansas City. People mark their running routes by the works. He’s received emails from parents who use the murals as signposts for family bike rides around the city. People were just as upset when the Big Dude’s mural was painted over as they were years ago when it was painted.

Steven Handley, who works at Foxx Equipment on Southwest Boulevard, said the murals Scribe has painted on his company’s building are loved by their customers and others who visit the area.

“I’ve been here 17 years — and this is no bull,” he said. “I sit out back every day at lunch and every week at least two or three people come around here and take pictures of the building.”

In a way, Scribe sees his work around the city as just a larger version of what he does at Children’s Mercy — though on the city murals he does have a little more freedom to paint things such as critters with sharp teeth or banana cannons, which are no-no’s at the hospital.

“Kids deal with enough garbage already,” he said. “They’re seeing enough bad stuff all the time. Getting sold things by billboards, telling them what to buy. When I go out and paint stuff on the walls outside in the city it’s another chance to offer an escape from all that stuff.”

When he started out painting murals around town with Gear, it was just the two of them, trucking on foot from his place at 43rd and Walnut with a 20-foot extension ladder and two giant army duffel bags full of spray paint. They’d paint for hours. They had no car. They used cans of paint that other people had thrown away. And at the end of the day, Scribe would grab one end of the ladder, Gear would grab the other, and they’d head back home.

“People would say, ‘I don’t know how you’re so prolific,’” he said. “But there’s just too many people waiting around for the perfect opportunity to make art. And if you’re broke and if you have to work, there is no perfect opportunity. In order to have enough work for people to take you seriously, you have to use every open moment.”

In his murals, Scribe often paints himself as a rhinoceros he calls Rumpus. This is the 20th anniversary of the character’s creation. Back when Scribe was finding his way, the image spoke to him. The rhino doesn’t see very well; after school, Scribe couldn’t see his future. And, like Scribe, rhinos are big and not naturally aggressive.

“They don’t go out looking for fights, unless provoked,” he said, laughing. “I kind of had a reputation for that.”

But he said rhinos also tend hang out by themselves, another trait he recognizes in himself. Even though he appears to be an outgoing and friendly person when he’s walking around town or at Children’s Mercy, he said that doesn’t come easy for him.

“It used to be that I hated talking to people,” he said. “It was a fear of being perceived as not being as intelligent as other people. Sometimes I’d leave school and just go around and take pictures of graffiti and jump fences, spending all day by myself. And I was just fine with that. If you’re doing graffiti you’re kind of a lone wolf, walking around bad parts of town, train tracks and stuff. That’s more natural to me.”

Scribe often paints people he knows and loves as animals in his murals. He paints his wife, the artist Alicia Furches Ross, as a playful otter. His 12-year-old son is a lion. His 10-year-old son, a giraffe.

Family was the impetus for the job at Children’s Mercy. He needed something with benefits, and he was hired on as a maintenance painter with the facilities department.

At first, he wasn’t sure how long the gig would last, but within six months he had painted his first mural at the hospital. Soon after, he was hired as staff artist. He’s been with the hospital for going on 14 years.

It’s easy to wonder if Scribe, who has some very strong and strident opinions on graffiti and art, in some way sees himself as selling out to corporate interests as a member of the hospital staff. He says he thinks about this all the time.

“I feel like I’ve stayed who I was since Day One, with some growth sprinkled in there,” he said. “Most artists want to make a living off of their art, they want independence, they crave to be their own boss — I still do, too. Even though I love working at Children’s Mercy, I want to wake up when I want to wake up.”

But with his higher public profile has come other opportunities. He’s published a couple of children’s books. His work is featured in art shows. He collaborated on an album with some local musicians. And he’s still doing murals around town.

On some weekends at Mo Brew on 39th Street, he and a couple of local DJs and musicians host Soulful Sundays, a chance for parents to listen to great music while their kiddos color pages of characters Scribe designed. He’s also raised thousands of dollars for the hospital’s volunteer program. He’s always creating a sense of community.

“You do your best,” he said. “I just try to serve as much as possible. I guess that’s just part of my biblical background. Serve whomever you’re working for and honor them, and if you’re lucky and blessed, it turns into something.”

His blessings have turned into blessings for many others. Children’s Mercy is perhaps one of the best places on earth to spend some of your worst moments. While the hallways are often filled with crying kids, worried moms who hold their babies extra tight and pallid dads staring off into the middle distance, the walls provide relief, distraction or maybe just a smile.

One of his most ingenious pieces at Children’s Mercy is in the orthopedic care waiting room. A chicken has its wing in a sling. A helmeted elephant rolls along in a wheelchair. Rabbits ride skateboards. Cats wave while limping along in a cast. There’s a fox with a prosthetic leg.

“We mixed them all together to make it not seem like there’s anything different,” Scribe said.

But there’s another message, something deeper. Except in the most tragic of cases, wounds heal. There will be bumps and bruises and calamities in life, but it gets better.

Scribe has experienced this first hand, not just in metaphor, but in real life. He’s also experienced the trepidation a parent feels when turning a kid over to the staff at Children’s Mercy.

His son had eye surgery not long ago, and Scribe suddenly found his worlds colliding. As his son was rolled away for the procedure, Scribe the staff painter and Scribe the artist became Scribe the dad.

“It was funny,” Scribe said. “They wheeled him around the corner, and I heard the nurse say, ‘Hey, your dad did all this stuff on the walls.’ And my son goes, ‘I know.’ 

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese