Graffiti is a crime that afflicts most major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C.
Walls and the sides of buildings, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often defaced by this illegal form of artistic expression.
But officials in the nation’s capital have come up with an innovative way to overcome their graffiti problem. MuralsDC enlists the talents of these local artists to help beautify, rather than deface the city.
Eric Ricks is one of those graffiti artists who used to illegally paint on buildings. Now, however, the city pays him to lead workshops for young artists.
“It’s one of those things I love to share,” he said, “and to see young people pick it up with the passion that I myself had… it’s a beautiful thing and I love to share it.”
About a dozen young artists recently gathered at the workshop in downtown Washington to learn how to use spray paint to make graffiti that beautifies rather than defaces.
Michelle Chen, one of the workshop participants who practiced on small walls, said using a can of spray paint at first seemed like a “very crude instrument for painting,” but added, “Just being able to see what artists are able to do with it is really amazing.”
After 10 weeks of training, most of the students, including Chen, joined Ricks in a neighborhood in the north of the city to create a vibrant mural on a wall which was once defaced with graffiti.
“I guess being an immigrant I have to say I’m truly living the American dream,” Ricks said, “because it’s the only place I can think of that I’ve ever been that you could take something so off-the-cuff like graffiti and turn that into something that you can live off.”
The mural took about seven days to paint. After Ricks made the initial sketch, his apprentices helped him spray paint the background, which was made up of colorful, cloud-like formations. They then filled in the shapes and words in distinct graffiti-style lettering, and then painted the images, which included the focal point of the mural; a close-up depiction of Ricks’ young daughter.
“It’s literally my love and my life that I’m sharing with this community,” he said.
Ernesto Zelaya is a graffiti artist who, like Ricks, used to paint illegal graffiti but now creates murals for the city, for pay.
He assisted Ricks on his latest mural.
“It’s nice to be out in the open, to express myself,” he said, “because I get to explode and show a lot of emotion as well and just be who I am, I guess.”
The mural is one of 50 the city has commissioned since the program began in 2007.
Aniekan Udofia, a well-known muralist, recently completed his eighth project for the city, the most recent one for a public aquatic center, a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, a performing arts and entertainment company that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Udofia has taught a number of graffiti workshops, which he said has been a rewarding experience.
“Graffiti basically is youth culture,” he said. “It’s one of those things youth do and it’s like being a rebel and trying to vandalize. So what I do is I work with them as far as showing them how to not only contain that anger but also use it in a more constructive way.”
“So instead of defacing property,” he added, “we show them how they can collaborate with artists like myself and create something that not only they can get paid for, but they can also get praised for.”
The D.C. Department of Public Works funds the murals projects, which has been beneficial in a number of ways.
“MuralsDC is a cost effective program,” said Nancee Lyons, who coordinates the program. “It’s saved a lot of business owners money, particularly small business owners. It is something that has really raised the awareness of graffiti art and murals around the city… and it allows young people to really see avenues for their creativity.”
Business owner Sarbjit Singh Kochhar appreciates the mural Ricks painted on the back wall of his liquor store.
“I think this is a beautiful contribution from my part for the community — clean building, nice artwork, and everybody’s happy,” he said.
That’s an emotion Eric Ricks can relate to.
“This project is very close to my heart,” he said. “It represents words that I live by that I think every community needs more of, and that’s empathy, love and of course passion, because without that you can’t do anything.”
Those special words are now imprinted on the mural he’s created which he will carry in his heart he said, as he journeys across America where he hopes to paint a mural in every state.