WASHINGTON - Graffiti is a crime that afflicts most major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C.
Building walls, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often defaced by this typically 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. But now the city pays him to lead workshops for young artists.
“It’s one of those things I love to share,” he said. “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.”
“Just being able to see what artists are able to do with it is really amazing,” she said.
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 once defaced with graffiti.
“I guess being an immigrant I have to say I'm truly living the American dream,” Ricks said. “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.”
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.
The piece took seven days to complete.
Like Ricks, Ernesto Zelaya, who assisted Ricks on his latest mural, is a graffiti artist who used to paint illegal walls but is now paid now to create murals for the city.
“It’s nice to be out in the open, to express myself,” he said. "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 D.C.-based muralist who hails from Nigeria, recently completed his eighth project for the city, a piece crafted for a public aquatic center in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, the iconic performing arts and entertainment company.
Udofia has taught a number of graffiti workshops, which he calls 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.”
“Instead of defacing property, 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,” he said.
The D.C. Department of Public Works funds the murals, which have proven beneficial in a number of ways.
“MuralsDC is a cost effective program,” said Nancee Lyons, the program coordinator. “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," he said. "Clean building, nice artwork, and everybody’s happy.”
It’s an emotion 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 words are now imprinted on the mural he’s created, which he says will carry in his heart as he journeys across America, hoping to paint a mural in every state.