‘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

Cre8tive YouTH*ink and ‘Sign Language’: 10 Panels Down, 80 To Go

Led by Chris Stain and Billy Mode, the Art School Without Walls, Vol. 6’s “Sign Language” begins to take shape and the crew meets Martha Cooper

Even the scheduled power outage (due to building maintenance) couldn’t stop the  Cre8tive YouTH*ink team from moving forward on their new mural.  No problem: the crew simply got busy using the natural light streaming into the spacious Brooklyn loft at Industry City.

The photographer legendary Martha Cooper surprises the team with a visit to the to the studio late Sunday afternoon.

The legendary photographer Martha Cooper surprises the team with a visit to the to the studio.
Photo: Mista Oh.

Rows of red, faux-brick panels with painted black and gray windows line the two long walls of the studio. A giant foot, taking up more than a single 4-foot-by-8-foot panel, gives a good indication of just how monumental the “Sign Language” mural will be once assembled at its final home at 267 Pacific in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in early spring.

The scale of this mural is massive! PHOTO COURTESY OF MISTA OH

The scale of the “Sign Language” mural is massive!
Photo: Mista Oh

Virginia, Cynthia, Lalita and Vince PHOTO COURSTSY OF MISTa OH

Virginia, Cynthia, Lalita and Vince
Photo: Nibor

The panels in-progress are secured by an ingenious system of wooden slats, which are secured to the wall above and below the mural planks. Smaller pieces of wood are screwed into the boards so that they may rotate, holding the boards in place until they are finished and can be sent out to the construction crew that will put them up on the facade of the forthcoming building at 267 Pacific Avenue in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

Chris Stain directing traffic Photo by Mista Oh

Chris Stain directing traffic
Photo: Mista Oh

A smaller side studio holds the completed panels, which lay on a slightly raised grid-system. These panels dry in the sunny, warm afternoon, waiting for their final layer of Sherwin-Williams industrial/marine clear acrylic overcoat for added protection. This smaller studio also houses most of the team’s supplies, with tubs of paint, brushes, wooden planks, aerosol cans and other items lined on a large makeshift table.

The team has spray-painted their names, tags, and various doodles onto these tables and the protective cardboard around the panels, giving the studio a lived-in feel.


Cynthia leaves her mark
Photo: Crystal Gonzalez

The team of apprentices hums with a familiarity that only comes from a group that has worked together before; indeed, some of the students have participated in all five of Mista Oh and Cre8tive YouTH*ink’s previous projects.

From a ladder, apprentice Cynthia applies red daubs in a cross-hatch technique. When she begins to run out of paint, crew chief Crystal is already on her way over with a new tray of paint. The two compare this new shade of red with the color already drying on the panel and decide to go with a darker hue, to give the brick more depth and texture. This is just one example of the confident communication and collaboration going on within this experienced team.

On Sundays, the girls outnumber the boys 2;1 - here we see Naiky, Lalita and Edwina -

On Sundays, the girls outnumber the boys 2:1 Here we see Naiky, Lalita and Edwina
Photo: Mista Oh.

On the other side of the room, Billy Mode talks with apprentices Alicia and Virginia, showing them one of his paintings. He discusses his use of stencils and how this technique can create mind-bending images. As fellow artists who have learned the art of stencils and spray cans directly from Mode himself, the team appreciates his work as equals.

Like the team they lead, Billy Mode and Chris Stain have a seasoned intimacy because of their collaborative history and friendship. Sometimes it seems like they don’t need to communicate verbally at all, so in sync are they with the project’s goals and progress. When they walk around the side studio, looking at the painted panels ready for their final coat, they merely nod satisfactorily and slap each other on the back.

Chris and Billy getting' it done -- outlines for the next day's work.

Chris and Billy getting’ it done late into the night — readying the outlines for the next day’s work.
Photo: Mista Oh.

In addition to traditional latex painting methods, the apprentices have learned aerosol spray-can techniques and stenciling savvy. These new skillsets are undoubtedly expanding the apprentices’ creative horizons. Despite an emphasis on the physical, plastic craft of painting during the construction of the mural, photography remains an essential component of the project.


Alicia applies her newly learned aerosol techniques
Photo: Cyrstal Gonzalez

The picture of an inner city youth collecting bicycle parts, on which the mural is based, hangs in multiple locations around the studio for inspiration. Big-ups to photographer Andrew Moore for his gift of the large-scale prints the team uses for reference.

Indeed, the legendary Martha Cooper, whose iconic series “Street Play Project” includes the mural’s source photograph, has visited the studio as well.

Photograph of Chris Stain's adaptation of "Street Play" - Extra large prints donated by Andrew Moore Photography

Chris Stain’s adaptation of “Street Play” Prints donated by Andrew Moore Photography.
Photo: Mista Oh.

She, like Stain and Mode, slid naturally into the role of mentor, doling out photography tips to crew chief Crystal, who is documenting the project for a class. Cooper, who like Stain and Mode hail from Baltimore, applauded the apprentices on their vision and dedication to such a large undertaking.

On Sunday, the first group of ten panels got their Sherwin-Williams clear coat to protect them against the elements, thereby completing the first set of mural panels.

Billy Mode at work

Billy Mode at work
Photo: Mista Oh.

The boards secured to the walls got their finishing touches of paint, soon to be moved to the side studio to dry and receive their final coat. The new, blank planks will be projected upon and stenciled, then painted and sprayed. The cycle goes on; wash, rinse, repeat. Ten panels down, 80 or so to go.

– Alexander Mahany

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