Teen Artists Paint Murals With Hope Of Curbing Gun Violence

Jul 13, 2016

About 100 teens, many of them covered in splattered paint, gathered at the corner of North Homewood Avenue and Idlewild Street in Homewood on Tuesday.

They formed a circle around Kyle Holbrook.

“We’re making a unified voice about, ‘Stop gun violence,’” said Holbrook, the founder of Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, or MLK.

“I lost all my friends growing up,” he said. “And I know you guys are going through a lot, so this is the time we come together and put an image that will be put up so that everyone can see it and remind them about stop gun violence, stop all this killing. Our job as artists is to make a statement, to make a visual statement so that people can remember.”

On the hot summer day, community and faith leaders joined the group, as the teens painted over a fresh, white coat of paint on the side of a church. They painted the phrase “Stop Gun Violence,” in bold, orange letters visible from the street. It’s one of 10 murals going up across Pittsburgh, all with the same message.

MLK pays students during the summer to work on public art projects, teaching them about design and potential art careers and the financial skills needed to manage the money they earn.

Teenagers participating in the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project use orange paint, to represent gun violence, for their mural in Homewood.
Credit Virginia Alvino / 90.5 WESA

Paris Wellons started as a young employee and is now a supervisor. He lives on Idlewild Street and said he’s lost his brother, and many more, to gun violence.

“This piece is real sentimental to me,” said Wellons, standing in front of the work-in-progress. “The youth and artists, it’s our job to come out here and at least try. We at least got to try to stop it. It’s not guaranteed that it’s going to work, but we at least got to try to stop this.”

The teens grabbed brushes and got to work, painting mostly freestyle while others painted letters. Brandon Ellis, 15, was among those painting.

“They showed us a picture,” he said of the final product. “It’s with butterflies and stuff, and the yin and the yang sign with two people on it.”

Ellis is in his first year of the program and is mostly optimistic about this particular mural.

“People come to this neighborhood every day,” he said. “People driving or walking seeing a big old thing that says, ‘Stop the violence.’ I guess that could help.”

Ellis lives in the Lincoln neighborhood and said that gun violence, or even just the idea of gun violence, has a real impact on his life.  

“It puts a kind of fear (in you),” he said. “You can’t walk in certain places at certain times. It’s always like a threat. You got to always watch your back and always be careful.”

Michelle Gilmore lives in Homewood and was there to support the work on the mural. The 44-year-old said the fear that Ellis feels is universal in her neighborhood.  

“Our youth want to play,” she said. “Our youth want to go to the playground. They want to be kids. And at this point, they can’t even be kids. Just look at their faces. They’re sad. Half of them are going to have to be in the house by five-o-clock. Why? Because they’re afraid to get shot.”

Gilmore said she’s lost a lot of friends and relatives to gun violence and these teens could grow up facing the same long-term effects that she has.

“I go to counseling all the time,” she said. “Because nobody knows the pain they go through.”

Rev. Glenn Grayson, who lost his son to gun violence, offered a prayer at the afternoon painting session.

“I’m looking around at all these faces of African American kids who have great potential to be doctors and lawyers, and so many things," Grayson said. "But I don’t want your potential to go into the ground."

Grayson said these murals are a visible reminder to people that guns take lives. He said he hopes that generations are able to benefit from that reminder.

“As folks ride by throughout the city and see phenomenal murals that will cause them to stop and pause,” he said, “it will cause them to be mindful of the blood and the sweat and the tears and the lives that have been lost through gun violence.”

The ten murals will be painted in the North Side, Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Uptown.