It wasn’t so long ago that street artists and muralists risked harassment and serious jail time for their efforts. Even as acceptance and appreciation for the genre has exploded, the last place you’d expect street artists to be welcomed would be a public school campus. But the Robert F. Kennedy Community School is not your average K-12.
In a confluence of history, progressive cultural policy, and timing, the street art champions of the LA-based Branded Arts organized the RFK Mural Festival, in which more than 20 active muralists were invited to create original, permanent works of art across the campus’ public spaces. The school administrators deemed their project as “the largest open air street art museum west of the Mississippi.”
The eclectic group of artists—all of whom donated their time, and many of whom worked with student volunteers to execute their visions—included Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, Sam Flores, Hueman, Greg Mike, Beau Stanton, Cyrcle, and more (a full list of contributors is in Branded Arts' portfolio). Some, like Cyrcle, made portraits of students from the school so that “the kids could literally see themselves in the art,” while others, such as Beau Stanton, incorporated decorative motifs from the Ambassador Hotel, which once occupied the site of the school.
The Ambassador Hotel was the site of RFK’s tragic assassination on June 6, 1968, as supporters gathered to celebrate his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. While none of the murals contain any direct political messaging—except Shepard Fairey’s centerpiece portrait tribute to RFK—the very idea of embracing a community-based, empowering, youthful, and diversely urban art form seems like the perfect way to honor his legacy. If the crowds of students who assisted the artists, stayed late to watch them work, and applauded when Shepard made the final touches on his piece are any indication, RFK’s dream of inspiring community activism in young people is alive and well.
From epic works like Risk’s mammoth wall of rainbow abstraction, to hidden gems like Woes' panda mayhem tucked away by where the bad kids go to sneak their smokes; from towering pieces like James Bullough’s high diver visible from surrounding streets, to intimate, almost poetic works from Curiot and Jeff Soto in the main plaza areas, the weeklong installation unfolded in front of the students’ eyes like performance art. Female students as young as eight years old queued up to watch Allison “Hueman” Torneros work and get her autograph. The students saw themselves in her and you could see their horizons widening right in front of your face.
In an educational climate often derided for “teaching to the test,” one school has the vision to teach their students that following their own path has it rewards. We hope the project will send droves of students to the guidance counselor—to ask about the possibility of going to art school.
The Mural Festival is now a permanent installation. The public is welcome, but unattended adults with cameras should check in with hall monitors first. You can follow the project at the Branded Arts Instagram and Facebook pages.