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New graffiti at Las Vegas schools delights students, teachers

Updated August 27, 2021 - 12:53 pm

Over the past year, while many students completed their schoolwork at home, a team of young graffiti artists roamed the hallways of Southern Nevada schools and recreation centers with cans of spray paint.

They adorned stairwells, classrooms, corridors and brick walls with characters from “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars,” with portraits of historical figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Edgar Allan Poe, and inspiring quotes written in bright colors.

The more than 20 centers and schools that are now home to these artworks teamed up with Graffiti Park, an initiative started by Daniel Bulgatz and Daniel Maloney, Las Vegans who believe “everybody is an artist.”

Graffiti Park artists at Martin Luther King Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)
Graffiti Park artists at Martin Luther King Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)

“We’re trying to essentially build a Graffiti Park that is the hub for anything art-centric in Las Vegas,” says Maloney, 25. “In order to do that, we kind of came up with a funding model of going to YMCAs and schools, because we felt that, of all people, kids are the ones to look at art for what it is.”

Graffiti Park Mural at Cheyenne High School. (Daniel Bulgatz)
Graffiti Park Mural at Cheyenne High School. (Daniel Bulgatz)

Bulgatz and Maloney’s long-term goal is to create a graffiti park — a permanent location where artists both amateur and professional can create, view and engage with the graphic and vibrant style of street art. “There’s a lot of blank canvases out there. And we’re trying to connect those canvases with artists who want to paint them,” says Bulgatz, 24.

In September, the two hobbyist artists received their first commission — 2,200 square feet of blank walls inside the multimedia Dreamr Lab at the Bill &Lillie Heinrich YMCA near Meadows Lane and Valley View Boulevard. After putting out a call for artists on Instagram, the two organizers and a team of seven local artists covered the room in bold and sunny designs.

For their second project, Bulgatz and Maloney provided materials for 37 artists to collaborate on a 600-square-foot mural at the Durango Hills YMCA on North Durango Drive.

Graffiti Park Mural at J E Manch Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)
Graffiti Park Mural at J E Manch Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)

Bulgatz and Maloney landed on something of a symbiotic system. The two organizers would line up walls and provide materials for artists. Artists would gain experience in creating murals. And the commissions could be squirreled away until enough was saved up to open a brick-and-mortar Graffiti Park.

Graffiti Park Mural at Cheyenne High School. (Daniel Bulgatz)
Graffiti Park Mural at Cheyenne High School. (Daniel Bulgatz)

Back to school

Sarah Popek, principal of Tate Elementary School in northeast Las Vegas, commissioned Graffiti Park to enliven a new building after her husband, the principal at Cambeiro, hired the group to paint his elementary school.

“Tate just opened the new campus and it was beautiful but had a lot of white space,” Popek says. “I want to make sure our campus is welcoming to our students, especially because this is a new building and, for many students, this is their first time on any campus in a year and a half.”

Graffiti Park Mural at Myrtle Tate Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)
Graffiti Park Mural at Myrtle Tate Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)

Of the 57 murals that the 62 artists completed, Popek says her favorites are the stylized alphabet letters near the kindergarten rooms, an Einstein quote in the STEM hallway and the school’s motto, “Roaring to Success,” spelled out in graffiti lettering by the cafeteria.

“It can be scary being back in school, especially when kids haven’t walked down a hallway in a long time,” says Popek, who has been the school’s principal for 10 years. “Walking down and seeing a tiger in a tree or an inspirational quote can make kids feel more welcome and more creative.”

Graffiti Park Mural at Myrtle Tate Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)
Graffiti Park Mural at Myrtle Tate Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)

Being a kid

Black57, a 29-year-old Las Vegas graffiti artist, has participated in several of Graffiti Park’s projects at local schools.

Graffiti Park Mural at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School. (Daniel Bulgatz)
Graffiti Park Mural at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School. (Daniel Bulgatz)

“I was one of those kids, biking to Spring Valley High School every day, walking through the desert lots, thinking about becoming a muralist,” Black57 says. “It makes me happy, influencing the younger generation in a positive way, showing them they can accomplish anything.”

Mural by Israel Sepulveda and students at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School (Israel Sepulveda)
Mural by Israel Sepulveda and students at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School (Israel Sepulveda)

After filling all the wall space in his own backyard with murals, artist Israel Sepulveda got in touch with Graffiti Park and worked on one of the first murals at the YMCA.

Since then, the 22-year-old has worked on 10 projects with the organization, and opened The Peak Gallery and Studio in New Orleans Square with another artist.

Mural by Israel Sepulveda at Myrtle Tate Elementary School (Israel Sepulveda)
Mural by Israel Sepulveda at Myrtle Tate Elementary School (Israel Sepulveda)

“It gives me that vibe of remembering being a kid with nothing to look at,” Sepulveda says. “I feel like if there was art like this when I was a kid, I would want to go to school and look at the murals.”

Mural by Israel Sepulveda at Myrtle Tate Elementary School (Shawn Maguire)
Mural by Israel Sepulveda at Myrtle Tate Elementary School (Shawn Maguire)

Looking ahead, Bulgatz and Maloney are lining up projects at more schools, as well as for a local festival, and are scouting locations for their long-dreamed-of Graffiti Park. They envision a hybrid indoor gallery space and outdoor shipping container-laden area that would be home to artists-in-residence, a print shop, an event space and a coffee shop — and plenty of wall space for graffiti art.

Graffiti Park Mural signed by the artists at Quannah McCall Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)
Graffiti Park Mural signed by the artists at Quannah McCall Elementary School. (Shawn Maguire)

“Graffiti artists are getting locked up for misdemeanors, felonies,” Bulgatz says. “We want to take them off the streets and put them into something that’s beneficial. We’re trying to take something with a negative connotation and show that there is beauty in it, that you can get your message out in a way that’s beautiful and meaningful.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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