Vincent Alejandro was painting a streetscape on the side of West Northrup Place building, depicting Main Street shops along with a little girl reading a book.
Around the corner an artist known as “Brakes” started a work that, when finished, will include “hip-hop vegetables.” More on that later.
And down Main Street a bit, in a narrow alleyway, artist Chuck Tingley was painting the face of a girl with cat-like eyes on a part of the same wall that an artist known as “OGRE” was using to create “Bookworm.” On an opposite wall in the same alley, David “Vintango” Pierro was painting a pink, blue and white robot figure that seemed like a cross between Beetle Bailey and a transformer. There was also a slight resemblance, especially in the face, to Pierro himself.
This is one answer to Buffalo’s graffiti problem.
Let a group of artists paint over the graffiti – and create a public art project in the process.
That’s exactly what was happening Sunday, and will continue the rest of this week, in Buffalo’s University Heights neighborhood.
A day earlier, on Saturday, a group of about 40 people, mostly University at Buffalo students, volunteered to help clean graffiti off University Heights buildings along Main and its side streets.
Cleaning graffiti off wood and vinyl siding can be tough, but is generally doable, organizers said. Getting graffiti off brick is another story. It’s almost impossible.
That’s where the artists came in.
Thirteen local artists are replacing the graffiti scrawled on a dozen or so brick buildings with streetscapes and other designs intended to add to the community picture rather than disfiguring it.
“With this project, we hope to show the University Heights community that the best approach to graffiti abatement is art itself, while adding to the unique flavor of University Heights,” said Jim Montour of Community Canvases.
Montour is among the small group of people responsible for the project. Others include Darren Cotton and Aaron Krolikowski, the founder and manager, respectively, of the University Heights Tool Library .
The Tool Library on West Northrup – which operates somewhat like a regular library by lending tools to members instead of books – obtained a $2,500 Keep America Beautiful grant that got the public art project started.
The first part of the project, Cotton said, was to locate graffiti. Volunteers were asked to report graffiti to the Tool Library using a smartphone application. The process resulted in about 100 graffiti locations, which were then mapped, Cotton said.
Community Canvases was brought in as a partner in the project, to bring public art to the sites where the graffiti could not be removed, Krolikowski said.
Community Canvases is rooted in a research project Montour was doing for Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek, who was looking for ways to combat graffiti. As a member of the Council’s central staff, Montour said, he learned that one solution is public arts. As a spin-off of that research, Montour and Alex Cornwell formed Community Canvases, devoted to bringing artists into communities to create public art.
For the University Heights project, Community Canvases brought in 13 local artists who are volunteering their time and talents. All the buildings being painted are owned by Michael Miranda, who gave the artists permission to replace graffiti with their art work, Montour said.
Some of the artists are formally trained and work out of art studios, or as graphic artists or designers. Others are largely self-taught. In a couple of cases, the art work seems rooted in graffiti-style painting.
Among the artists working Sunday was Alejandro, who recently returned to Buffalo after 20 years. After graduating from Performing Arts High School, Alejandro moved to Missouri with his family. He said he financed his return by “painting his way back” to Buffalo. The streetscape he’s painting on West Northrup is entitled “Higher Learning in University Heights.”
Garrett Dykstra, 27, of Lockport, was painting a Buffalo skyline on another wall of the West Northrup building.
Around the corner, the artist known as “Brakes” was doing a hip-hop-style painting that will include, he said, hip-hop vegetables, including a tomato with a gold chain.
Another artist, known as “Rusker,” was painting a portrait often referred to the “Buffalo Ugly Face.”
Working in another alley was Tingley, 30, a SUNY Buffalo State graduate who has an art gallery on Exchange Street. He was painting a large face of a young girl with gold and brown cat-like eyes. On the same wall, OGRE, 29, whose “Book Worm” painting bore some resemblance to Eric Carle’s “Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Painting the opposite wall in the alley was Pierro, whose work was his signature robot design. Pierro is a graphic designer who graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1998, then from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
Some of the artists had just about finished their work before the sun went down Sunday. Others would be continuing over the next week.
“We hope this project and partnership with Community Canvases can turn into a larger public art initiative,” Krolikowski said.