It was the first project I would call my own. The Art & Global Health Center asked me to coordinate a new idea for their high school sexual health education program and what followed was the first time I really saw the power of what art is capable of when a community takes action.
The UCLA Sex Squad’s goal was to open a dialogue with Los Angeles teens about sex and sexual health. The group talked about condoms, HIV, pregnancy, LGBT bullying, and having the right to make your own decisions. At the end of the performance the high school students were asked if they knew where they could go for condoms or HIV testing nearby. Some knew. A lot didn’t. Then came the reveal.
Each school was presented with a mural that directed students to the nearest condom and testing locations from their schools. The graffiti-style murals were vibrant, colorful, and seamlessly blended beautiful art with important information. Not only did the kids love the artwork, but also took note of the information to protect themselves.
Creating the eleven site-specific murals was no easy feat. It took every bit of creative hustle we had and passionate support from the Los Angeles graffiti community. First it took an aggressive push to find the artists with the talent, time, and who really got what the project was about. One by one we found artists who were driven by the opportunity to make art with a cause.
Then, with a recommendation by a few Sex Squad members, we contacted Lanny Markasky- a professional muralist and tattoo artist. He immediately accepted and brought in another artist. But as the mural day approached, I was still very nervous, because we were two artists short. Lanny came to the rescue again. He brought in two more artists who, despite having no preparation or warning, immediately bought into the purpose of the project and were ready to go.
And then the mural day was upon us. We were ready for whatever the day was going to bring. Except rain. And winds. The weather report had predicted a chance of late afternoon showers. Apparently late afternoon meant 9 am that day. We were running all around campus to cover the murals with tarps and try to figure out a solution. Acrylic artists Will Deutsch, Christopher Velasquez, and Danny Heller started inside. The aerosol artists waited for a change in the weather. With a slight break in the rain, they ran outside and started spray-painting the murals. Right away they fell into a rhythm and the murals started to come to life right before our eyes.
And then the rain came back. We had to think of a Plan B, and then a Plan C as the artists sprinted with their murals for cover. We had artists under every awning we could find, taping tarps to every wall and pinning up the murals in every safe spot imaginable.
Lanny and Sahra Nguyen worked outside in back of Kaufman, Alexandra Graniello and Joseph Cabello took cover in the stairwell by Anderson, and Joe Alascano sprinted back to the original spot once it stopped pouring.
Even though they had so many reasons to, the artists didn’t give up. Instead, the experience brought everyone closer together. We powered through with the shared goal, laughter, and creativity. It was amazing to see how despite unfortunate conditions, the power of community involvement made the day really enjoyable. Here were all of these artists working through the rain and wind to make art and even with a smile on their faces. It was such a rewarding sight.
The group finished the murals just after sunset around 6:30pm, the murals were finished. The entire bottom floor was covered with the gorgeous murals as they dried… They looked more amazing than I could have ever imagined. Each artist interpreted combining school pride with themes of sexual health so differently. Each of the artists incorporated their styles and aesthetics into the mural. Looking at them in a row, they all looked different but similar at the same time. It was as if they belonged in the same collection but with contributions from multiple artists. We could not have been happier with the outcome. I’m even thankful for the rain.
We couldn’t wait to get them to the high school students. In the meantime, the murals went up on display in Kaufman so that they could be shared with the WAC community before departing to schools. As each school approached on the tour, the murals were taken down from the lounge and sent with the Sex Squad to be presented to schools. A picture of the mural took its place in Kaufman. The room full of pictures has reminded us that the murals, though gone from Kaufman, are up in the high schools doing the real work- showing Los Angeles teens where to go for condoms and HIV testing.
The AMP! Mural Project was an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of youth. I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to make this happen. Though I’ve always believed in the power of art making, I’ve never seen it actually happen so dramatically. And here it was right before my eyes. What a gift. I now truly believe that art can spark conversation across boundaries of cultures and traditions.
We didn’t get through to these students with lectures, patronizing judgments, or an after school special. We wouldn’t have been successful if we tried. Instead we treated them as adults, and shared our art with them… We brought UCLA role models to their schools to communicate through the art they know and love. We made it funny, heartfelt, passionate, and most importantly real. Hopefully with this approach, we made a stronger impact than we otherwise could.
This project has helped me remember that art can actually make a tangible difference in communities when it’s done with passion and originality by sparking conversation. Conversation leads to communication, which could eventually lead to change. In this case, the change is very much a reality. These students may walk down the hall of their high school and see that mural every day. And hopefully with every interaction they will be reminded of the potentially life saving information.