Most of us have probably seen street art plastered on city walls; the bright colors and images often catch our attention as we walk or drive past.
However, if you take a longer look, you might realize that those colors and designs are more than just decoration. For some youth artists in New York City, these murals represent hope and a chance for a new life.
The public art is part of a sponsored movement called Groundswell, and it is a growing occurrence in New York City. Run by program director Patrick Dougher, this non-profit sponsors youth artists and apprentices to produce artwork and murals across the city.
But their paintings are more than just your average street graffiti. When Groundswell was founded in 1996, its goal was to use public arts projects to transform poorer areas and the lives of the disadvantaged youth within them. Since then, 450 murals have sprung up in 75 different neighborhoods.
Most of the 800 artists who work on Groundswell projects throughout the year are between the ages of 14 and 21. Some attend the city’s public school system, while for others, being an artist is mandatory community service assigned by the criminal justice system. All the youth come from working-class or low-income families.
There is this misconception that street murals are defacing city property, but that is far from the truth for the walls decorated by Groundswell artists. All of the public canvases have been donated by local businesses with the hope that these art will inspire success in the youths of the area.
Groundswell’s new target is Brownsville, an area where one in 12 of males ages 16-24 are in prison. Over the next two years, Groundswell will work to construct five murals in the neighborhood — thanks to a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.
Among the crew will be 40 probationers, plus some Groundswell veterans. Already, two murals have gone up, attracting attention from the residents.
“Brownsville Moving Forward” is one of the newest murals, and it speaks volumes to the area and the group’s mission. It’s on a wall directly opposite a bus stop, so everyone passing by can see it and understand the message that this community is not giving up. Featured in the mural are the top inspirational members of the Brownsville neighborhood — including community organizer and educator Mother Gaston.
“That’s what I love about where this one is,” says Dougher. “It’s a bus stop. Think how many hundreds of people are going to see it every day.”
And that is just the start as more murals pop up across the city. So the next time you pass by those colorful brushstrokes, think about the hands and faces behind them — and the change that they are bringing about in their community.