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Aerosol Art: Out of Graffiti Comes Renewal

The graffiti mural in Monmouth, IL
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The Buchanan Center for the Arts is a facility not always found in a community of 10,000 people. Located in Monmouth, county seat of Warren County in western Illinois, the center features a 2,400-square-foot exhibit space, an artisan gift shop and a large studio for classes, meetings and other arts-related and community events.

It is housed in a historic building on “the square,” which is a circular park in the center of downtown, still surrounded by vibrant businesses alongside its 19th century courthouse and county building. Monmouth, founded in 1831 in the Military Tract (land given to veterans of the War of 1812), is the home of Monmouth College, birthplace of Wyatt Earp and one of the places former President Ronald Reagan lived growing up in Illinois.

Two of the artists who created the graffiti mural in Monmouth, IL
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Two of the artists who created the graffiti mural in Monmouth, IL

So, this Norman Rockwell setting was disturbed when gang symbols and other graffiti became increasingly common on private buildings and public spaces, including the wall along the walkway between the arts center and the library. 

But, for Susan Twomey, executive director of the Buchanan Center, the simple act of opening the door turned gang vandalism into art and misguided teenagers into productive people.

“There were people who wanted to catch [the spray painters] and hang them up by their thumbs,” she says. 

Instead, she taped a note to the wall inviting the teens to express their art in a mural, one accepted by the community. She bought them high-quality paints and left her door open for guidance. 

The graffiti mural in Monmouth, IL
The graffiti mural in Monmouth, IL

“They were a scary lot at first,” she says, with their tattoos, piercings, dyed hair and tattered clothes. “But, you had to look past that.” She says she learned some of the half-dozen aerosol artists lived on the streets, going from couch to couch, sometimes sleeping in ATM machine enclosures. 

“I don’t think many people believe this kind of thing happens, especially to children, in small towns.”

However, as the teens’ art developed and their mural grew to completion, they grew and matured, too. High school dropouts went back to school to get a degree. They got jobs and moved into homes of their own.

The story of the Monmouth graffiti artists was told in a segment of the PBS show Arts Across Illinois, underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council. The center has a link to it on its website: bcaarts.org.

Last summer, one of the original muralists, Bobby Hall, was scheduled to teach graffiti classes at the center. However, Twomey says, the space given to them for a new mural was in the country and not enough people signed up. She says she’ll try again but will have the classes in the center.

And the graffiti on public spaces?

“It’s virtually nonexistent at this point,” says Twomey. “It seems once you legitimize something, the thrill of doing it gets diminished.”

Illinois Issues, December 2010

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