‘Sign Language’: The Mural’s Origins and What It Has Taught the Apprentices So Far

Things are looking up at the studio, the red panels of faux-brick apartment buildings replaced with planks of soft blue sky and wispy clouds. At Cre8tiveYouTH*ink’s temporary headquarters at Industry City in Brooklyn, the mural production is progressing quickly, and it was time for some reflection on the “Sign Language” project, its origins, and its impact on the arts apprentices.

The Crew with the Developers of 267 Pacific Street photo by Vince Maximum

The Cre8tive YouTH*ink crew with the developers of 267 Pacific Street.
Photo: Vince Maximin.

On a brisk Sunday, the developers of the mural’s eventual home at 267 Pacific StreetThe Quinlan Development Group and Lonicera Partners – stopped by the studio to check out progress on the mural. Tim Quinlan, the development group’s senior partner, spoke about his hope for this project. While he humbly understates the tremendous influence he and his group have had in making the project happen, he makes clear his desire to “support the next generation of artists,” stating numerous times that he is very gratified to be providing the youths with the opportunity to participate in the building’s construction while developing new artistic skills.

And indeed the project has helped the apprentices develop as artists by inspiring new ideas and learning new techniques for their own work outside of this project. For some of the apprentices, the use of stencils and spray paint was a first, and has been a tremendous learning experience.

Virginia Sanchez

Virginia Sanchez: at 15 years old, she is the youngest member
Photo: Vince Maximum.

“I can’t remember when I used stencils before, not how we do here. ” said Virginia, the youngest apprentice in the project.

Similarly, some of the apprentices were exposed to spray paint in a new light by the project. The legitimacy of aerosol-based street art was stressed and reinforced as a mode of expression by the project’s teaching artists Billy Mode and Chris Stain.

Two Masked Men Descended Upon the City

Two Masked Men Descended Upon the City – Teaching Artists Chris Stain and Billy Mode
Photo: Mista Oh

Evan Orion Photo: Mista Oh

Evan Orion
Photo: Mista Oh

Evan Orion, project crew chief, explained that he had never used spray paint specifically in a studio before this mural. “I never mixed straight-up painting with tagging. It was either one. But there’s more possibilities if you use the two.”

Cynthia Martinez: " I have learned that you can use spray paint for things besides tagging" Photo: VInce Maximin

Cynthia & Rocky: “It’s more than just tagging”
Photo: VInce Maximin

This sense of “possibilities” was shared by Cynthia, who explained, “I hadn’t really used spray paint before, though I’ve seen other people. But after this project, I will definitely use it in my stuff. You can use it for things besides tagging.”

For all of the apprentices, the boundaries of what constitutes “art” have been expanded. As Josie Gonzalez, Crew Chief Crystal’s mother, explained when she made a home-cooked dinner for the artists, “Food is art too!”

Since the project began, Crystal has been immersing herself in photography, inspired by Martha Cooper. “I would like to do what she did with ‘Street Play.’ I see the kids playing and I think, I want to document them.”

Crystal:  Photo: Jazzmine Beaulieu

Crystal: “Now I see the kids playing and I want to document them.”
Photo: Jazzmine Beaulieu

For those who had previously worked with stencils and spray paint, the sheer size of the mural taught them not to think small when it comes to their own art.

Mark Gonsalves Photo: Vince Miaximin

Mark: Now feels able to go BIG too
Photo: Vince Miaximin

“I have a big mural at my house that I’ve been trying to work on forever, maybe 12 feet long and four feet high,” said Mark. “After working on a project this big, I know I can do something with it.”

Lalita agreed that the scale of the project was making her more ambitious. “Before I never used to work on a large scale because it felt like it was too much, to cover all that space. But working on this mural, now its not intimidating anymore.”

Tim Quinlan also spoke about the origins of the idea of the mural’s production, which, came to him while walking down Smith Street with John Evans (another partner in the project) and realizing they had a “80 foot blank concrete wall” visible from the streets of Downtown Brooklyn.

They wanted to make an addition to the building and knew it couldn’t be an advertisement, “But something that would relate to New York City, the neighborhood, its history.” Quinlan continued, “We wanted something that didn’t just look community based, but actually was community-based.”

Their search ultimately led them to Cre8tive YouTH*ink, a non-profit creative arts youth development organization. The mutually beneficial relationship between the two groups was immediately obvious; and that’s how the building at 267 Pacific Street gets to have a beautiful mural which will become a part of the neighborhood’s visual landscape, and the Art School Without Walls team members get to cut their teeth and develop a new set of valuable skills by working on such a large-scale project.

Chris Stain's interpretation of Martha Cooper's photograph for the mural that will be placed on a new building on Smith St. & Pacific Ave this Spring.

Rendering of the mural going up at 267 Pacific Street by Cre8tive youTH*ink featuring Chris Stain and Billy Mode

Quinlan spoke about pride of ownership, which both teams feel at this point in the project. “But also, those who live in the building can feel proud of it, and then the neighborhood around Boerum Hill area too, and all of those passersby who see it, they can all take ownership.”

Mista Oh, head of the Cre8tive YouTH*ink team agreed, “This is our tag — and it’s gonna be there for a long while — we couldn’t be more stoked.”

— Alexander Mahany

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