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Legal graffiti artists create murals around Washington, D.C. as past of MuralsDC

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Friday, January 15, 2010; WE22

Art lovers, meet the city's legal graffiti initiative, a program responsible for the creation of 20 of Washington's most vibrant, thought-provoking and contemporary outdoor works.

The colors are so vivid, the shapes so interesting that it's almost beside the point that the artistry of these murals has an ulterior motive. MuralsDC began in 2007 as a publicly funded program designed to channel youthful destructive energies into positive forces throughout the District. The project is guided by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the city's public works department and Midnight Forum -- a community-based, hip-hop youth development arts program.

Artists partner with local youth groups to reflect the positive culture and history of surrounding neighborhoods. Designs, devoid of political or commercial themes, are a collaborative effort among residents, businesses and artists. Student apprentices help research the area and prepare the site. They then are coached in various painting techniques and improving upon those used by illegal graffiti artists.

Mika Altskan, 17, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, has been working with Albus Cavus, an artist collective, since July. "I used to try to do street art, but after I had a run-in with the police I started to mainly do photography," he said. "I now take pictures for Albus Cavus, and I help paint the murals as well. Albus Cavus is a way that I can create public art but not get in trouble for it." In addition, he meets artists he has admired for years and gets invited to art events around the city.

Altskan recently joined the Young Inventors Club under the umbrella of Albus Cavus. "We are working on creating interactive LED lights to illuminate the murals," he said.

MuralsDC projects dot formerly blighted walls around the city. As you're out and about, take a moment to soak in art that not only reflects -- but also builds -- community.

Walter Pierce Park

2630 Adams Mill Rd. NW

Artist: Aniekan Udofia, partnered with Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy

Both sides of the long, low wall have been adorned with lively scenes signifying movement in the park and beyond. Birds soaring from a globe represent people fleeing their native lands in search of better lives, says artist Aniekan Udofia, a native Washingtonian. A young girl blowing bubbles as a cartoonish pup bounds happily along seems to beckon onlookers to run, jump and play.

"Unity"

600 Alabama Ave. SE

Artist: Michael Hammond with Midnight Forum

The message here is very subjective. While it's meant to represent the closeness of and interaction between community and family, many observers see a spiritual theme in it.

"Life Makes Music"

Riggs Road NE at South Dakota Avenue

Artists: Joel Bergner and Rashad Cuffee with youth from Oak Hill Youth Detention Center

Striking faces of youth and maturity symbolize how music speaks to each generation and has long been a part of the District's heritage. It's hard to refrain from skipping along with the implied beat here.

Mural near Howard University

Fairmont Street and Georgia Avenue NW

Artist: Andrew Funk with Midnight Forum

The proud image of a graduate seems fitting for this mural across from Howard University and Benjamin Banneker High School. The work literally turns a corner, and images of an older man playing the trumpet and a young girl strumming a guitar pay homage to the musical heritage of this neighborhood, which was home to Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington.

"Shaw Community Mural"

1507 Ninth St. NW

Artist: G. Byron Peck with City Arts DC

The second of two murals that didn't use aerosol painting techniques, this instead uses a German mineral paint that looks like liquid glass and is designed to last 100 years. The bright hues echo those in stained-glass windows at Shiloh Baptist Church across the street. Oval portraits of Langston Hughes and Carter Woodson flank scenes of the block's renovation.

"Untitled"

1435 Meridian Pl. NW

Artist: Aniekan Udofia with Midnight Forum

The owner of a private residence volunteered his wall so students from Bell Multicultural High School could transform a dreary alley into a setting for a colorful blend of faces, hip-hop speakers, bubbles and a pair of hands reaching for education.

"Metamorphosis"

615 Division Ave. NE

Lead artist: Maurice Hill with Ward 7 Arts Collaborative

Twenty-year-old Maurice Hill, a graduate of Friendship Public Charter School, says his mural should be viewed from right to left. It serves as a mirror for residents to see themselves and their community, but not through rose-colored glasses. "I didn't want it to be a hold-hands, we-are-the-world thing," Hill says. The progression shows how the historically black community changed with the influx of different groups. The last panel represents a bright future as people learn from one another. There are no words here, and that's intentional, Hill says. "I want people to think about what they're seeing," he says.

"The Crane"

400 Florida Ave. NW

Artists: Joel Bergner and Rashad Cuffee with youth from Oak Hill Youth Detention Center

Located on the side of a Chinese carryout, this compact mural uses a popular image from Chinese culture. The crane is a symbol for longevity because of its exceptionally long life span. In many legends, it also represents soaring spirits, happiness and wisdom.

"Seasons in the City"

907 Barry Pl. NW at Sherman Avenue

Lead artists: Asad Walker, Decoy, Chor Boogie, Peter Krsko, Leon Rainbow with Albus Cavus

This expansive wall shows a colorful procession of residents enjoying the city throughout the year. The improvisational style walks the viewer through a string of images evoking Mother Earth, Father Time, nature and cityscapes.

Want to get involved?

These groups bring artists and local youth together. They can always use your help. Here's how to contact them.

Words, Beats and Life: www.wblinc.org

Latin American Youth Center: www.layc-dc.org

Albus Cavus: www.albuscav.us

City Arts: www.cityartsdc.org

The Midnight Forum: www.midnightforum.org

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