Over the weekend, the August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens was transformed into a massive graffiti gallery when over 100 artists such as MERES, CUBA, CYCLE, JERMS, Phetus, POET, YES1, CLAW, Cernesto, KING BEE, Plasma Slug, T-KID, AMUZE, SHIRO, and so many others descended on the massive building and spray painted their work directly on the walls of the facility’s cavernous hallways. Another 30 or so will be returning this weekend. Unlike most graffiti meccas, which emerge from abandoned buildings and decrepit ruins, the school is still active. In fact, its administration and student body actively sought out the urban artists. (Click gallery above to see all the work)
“We need to reinvent ourselves and the way to reinvent ourselves is to empower students,” said Principal Gillian Smith about the project. “The building looks magnificent.”
(Principal Gillian Smith)
From the outside, the high school is absolutely beautiful. The hulking, three-story facility is punctuated by four massive columns and tall golden doors. But, like the community surrounding it in South Jamaica, August Martin High School is straining to keep its head above water. The majestic doorways open to another, more oppressive set that lead to metal detectors. The high school is considered to be one of the worst schools in New York, struggling to keep a graduation rate of 39%. Attendance hovers at 70%.
The unconventional idea to bring urban art into the hallways was hatched by students who make up that school’s Dream Team, teens who receive guidance from “Dream Directors” appointed by national non-nonprofit the Future Project. The Future Project works with at-risk schools like August Martin to empower students to realize their goals. “The students said they want to see something they can relate to on the walls,” said Justin, a 16-year-old Dream Team student. “So, we created a project called Operation Skittles to decorate 100% of August Martin’s walls: graffiti, murals, quotes, people, whatever inspired the students to come to school.”
(5Pointz’s MERES One & Marie Flageul)
The students originally tried to paint the space themselves, but creating murals and getting their peers to participate in such a spatial undertaking isn’t as easy as they thought, so they reached out to 5 Pointz’s MERES One and Marie Flageul to see if they would curate the expansive space. The organization always seems interested in doing large scale, charitable projects since the demise of its beloved fortress in Long Island City. “There’s places where it’s needed more than others, and that’s where we – as a community of artists need to concentrate our energy,” said CLAW about why she participated.
But the collective had one condition: the artists could paint what they want within reason—obviously no pornography or racism. Remarkably, the principal agreed. “If I begin to say you can only do this and you can only do that, then that’s not a partnership,” explained Smith. “That’s no longer empowerment.”
(“Inspire” by SKI, 2ESAE and COL Wallnuts)
The artists were informed they weren’t going to be paid and would have to bring their own paint, and they still showed up. Dream Students rolled out paper to keep the floor from getting covered and served breakfast and lunch. “Definitely felt obligated considering I came from the same environment growing up,” said 2ESAE, “and to be able to give back and stimulate these kids visually through art with hopes they find ways to express themselves is an amazing feeling. Always give back to the yoot!”
In spite of this freedom to paint what they want, the majority of the artists incorporated school-like themes into their pieces. The area outside the school’s science labs was very focused with two trios of artists — AWZ, ZESONER, and JUST along with AMUZE, JERMS and TOPAZ — painting huge site-specific murals. SEE of the legendary True Fame crew painted an aerosol portrait of Albert Einstein. SKI and 2ESAE from URNewYork and COL Wallnuts barely wrote their names, instead dedicating their space to massive pieces on the third floor that read “create” and “inspire.”
(Doors by Phetus)
The basement, with virtually no windows, was especially in need of some sprucing up. MERES set the space off by painting an anamorphism that students would be able to interact with. NYC artist Phetus painted wildly colorful faces on all the doors. “For my entire schooling career the graffiti art was a NO GO,” said Phetus, “so this is my GET BACK at the schooling system that didn’t accept it. But on the flip side it’s also my GIVE back, meaning if I could just give back a piece of my talent to inspire a kid lost in the schooling system, it’s a win-win.”
“The first meeting we had with some of the kids is that the kids absolutely hate looking at those doors because behind the doors are the metal detectors and the security point,” said Flageul. To brighten up those entrances, MERES painted his iconic lightbulb character on all of them with an inspirational quote above each. “My goal is to get the graduation rate up to 51% by next year,” said MERES.
The principal and artists hope the art in the hallways will make the building more inviting. “I hope my piece is like vacation between classrooms or a reason to walk down a different hallway,” said Plasma Slug.
This, in turn, could help boost attendance, one of school’s fundamental issues. “I don’t think looking at a picture of Lauryn Hill or Albert Einstein is going to make the students smarter,” said SEE, “but I do think they will come into the school to see it and once they’re in school, the teachers take over. The catch is: you gotta make it past the doors. If they don’t make it past the doors, the kids don’t stand a chance and the teachers can’t do their job.”
The high school will open its doors to the public on June 11th. Check www.5ptz.com for more info.
(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)