When Franklin Elementary students saw the graffiti on a school wall Nov. 14, they thought someone had broken into the building over the weekend.
They didn’t know at the time that it was all planned, and artist Steven Raez had permission to create the black and white graffiti-style mural. The goal was to create a buzz, and it certainly worked.
“There was a lot of talk and excitement, like an art movement should have,” art teacher Jana Weeks explained Tuesday.
Later, during her art classes, Weeks explained to her students that the difference between graffiti — and breaking the law through tagging — is permission. And Raez not only had permission, he was invited to school to practice his artistic skills, which he did on Nov. 12.
“They were really excited that we had the opportunity to have him here at our school,” Weeks said.
In the future, Weeks hopes to arrange a session where students can interact in person with Raez, possibly a graffiti educational class.
Raez describes his mural as “futuristic” and “Picasso-inspired,” using faces to show a range of emotions.
Weeks teaches a unit on graffiti and explains that tagging is against the law. “The best way, if you want to do graffiti, you have to ask permission,” she emphasizes.
In the unit, she covers a lot of different graffiti artists, including Banksy, who is well-known as a street artist and activist. The unit also includes the nationwide “you are beautiful” movement.
A few years ago, Principal Tina Horrall gave permission to Weeks to use a wall near her room for art, and until recently that wall had a mural that Weeks painted featuring heroes; it also showcased student art focused on their heroes.
“We needed to refresh it. I put some feelers out to find a graffiti artist, and Steven’s name was given to me,” she said.
“He is amazing,” she said. He spent about 2 1/2 hours on the project. “It is fantastic.”
Raez, who is from Terre Haute, has graffitied for about 15 years. His work can be seen in the ceiling at The Verve, a wall at Headstone and Friends and a traffic control box in 12 Points, among other locations. He does exhibits and paintings and his artwork has been sold to customers internationally, he said.
Graffiti sparked his interest in art and opened other avenues, prompting him to pursue fine arts, he said.
He moved to Seattle for about a year and is now back in his hometown.
Raez described it as an honor to practice his art in a school setting.
“Graffiti is still an outlaw art to me,” he said. “So anytime you can get permission like this to do something at a school and inspire youth in a different kind of light, it means a lot to me.”
Graffiti, even with permission, “is still frowned upon in certain places,” said Raez, who attended Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Terre Haute South Vigo and McLean High school.
His sources of inspiration have included the Gilbert Wilson mural at Woodrow Wilson, and he credited Christy Ellis, his McLean School art teacher, for her encouragement.
Explaining the Franklin Elementary mural, Raez said he used faces to depict the many different emotions and feelings that kids experience.
“I thought for a school setting, kids experience a lot of different emotions. It’s never just happy or sad; there is a lot of in between … people don’t really understand,” he said.
Standing next to the futuristic, Picasso-inspired mural, he showed a smiling face, an aggressive face and others that expressed anxiety and hope. He pointed to eyes, mouths, teeth (a few of them gold) and noses in the mural.
“I just free-styled this,” he said. “There was no script. I just did it off the top,” using spray paint.
One of his missions is bringing more culture to Terre Haute, he said. Graffiti is accepted in places like Los Angeles and New York.
“It’s still kind of being discovered in a fine art form here,” Raez said. “A lot of the contemporary artists that are emerging into the fine art scene came from graffiti.”
Graffiti can be done in a positive way, he said. But not everyone is a fan.
He painted a traffic control box at 12 Points that “got some backlash. This kind of work is still not accepted by many people,” he said.
Still, “It’s an honor for me to put it out in the public eye and no matter if it’s hated or if it’s liked, it’s still a different art form that will be appreciated,” Raez said.
On Tuesday, students were captivated by his work.
Fifth-grader Olwyn Overpeck said of the mural, “It’s very cool. It’s very realistic. …I think it’s imagination that makes it cool.”
Deonna West, also a fifth-grader, said, “I think it’s very unique and a little bit weird… It’s weird but cool.”
Grayson Allen said he liked how it “can be anything you want it to be.” He said he’d enjoy doing similar art.
Weeks said students and staff “are honored to have this masterpiece in our school.” She also praised Principal Horrall, “who supports the arts 100%.”