Jason Harrington, aka muralist Rif Raf Giraffe, thinks that in the near future, Kansas City will be home to perhaps the densest mural park in the nation.
Miami, New York, and Philadelphia might have the big ones right now, but Harrington has rounded up more than 25 of the country’s best street artists — 10 from out of state and one from Brazil — and paired them with some primed buildings in the Crossroads, which means Kansas City is about to have 30 freshly painted walls in a fairly small area.
Harrington, along with his wife artist Ami Ayars Harrington, and artist Mark Allen, have organized a series of events called Solanoir to celebrate the upcoming solar eclipse — and celebrate Kansas City while the rest of the nation notices this is a place where the eclipse is visible.
Allen spent the last two years living in Los Angeles. He started hearing about the eclipse from family members back home in St. Joseph, who said hotels were already sold out and a Japanese group had rented an entire Menard’s parking lot.
“I just had a vision of being with my closest friends, in a circle, all watching the big totality together in one place,” Allen says from the dark recesses of his studio in the Vulpes Bastille space near 17th and Locust. “It slowly snowballed into wanting to have events, tying in astrology and the significance of the eclipse for people.”
Aside from that astronomical occurrence, his main event is the painting of the murals.
Allen moved back to Kansas City, and seeing his town with fresh eyes after his haitus out west, threw himself into organizing the Solanoir events.
From the windows of the third-story gym where he works out, Allen says, he often stares at the art deco flourishes of the Midland Theater and thinks the upcoming mural project is an excellent modern extension of that type of embellishment.
Harrington, a longtime street artist, sees the project as a chance for more people to experience art.
“I think a lot of people find that stale: going to art museums," Harrington says. "It’s the same old, ‘Don’t touch the walls, don’t do this.’ To be able to walk around and engage buildings at your own level of how you want to, is a different experience — the newer experience — of how people want to enjoy art.”
Harrington says he spoke with Matt Abbott of Abbott Properties about the mural idea at a Christmas party, specifically the Wynwood Walls project in Miami. He says Abbott hadn’t heard of Wynwood but visited Miami the following week, saw the walls, and was on board to do something similar in the Crossroads.
Word spread quickly, and Harrington says property owners have offered the artists 10 large walls and 20 smaller ones.
Many building owners in Kansas City have long understood that professional art deters illegal graffiti tagging; like other mural projects in town, Allen says, this one's goal is “really filling these walls up with art and inspiring people to beautify and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings [in a way] other than vandalism.”
The muralists — many of whom, Harrington points out, tended toward tagging when they were young — will have creative freedom in what they paint. Only a few building owners have requested particular artists based on their portfolios, and even fewer have given guidelines about what is acceptable.
Though the total solar eclipse is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Solanoir planners would like to make the street art festival annual. That would be essential to maintenance and growth of the mural park.
“Because we’re so centrally located, and artists aren’t the wealthiest of people, it’s the easiest trek for everyone to come here," Harrington says. "We really have the wall space and proximity to downtown, and that the community has totally embraced it is quite remarkable.”
Several local filmmakers will record the artists at work.
“The big goal after this is making a documentary that really crystallizes the vision and shows people what it is,” Allen says.
They also hope that, with enough sponsors, they will be able to attract more big-name muralists in the future. This year they’re able to offer modest lodging and necessary supplies to participants, but no pay.
All in all, Harrington says he thinks this event will take Kansas City to the “next tier artistically, as a destination city for art and murals."
The Crossroads, he says, "has been very homogenous for so many years. To get a different breath of people in here and breathe a different life in, will pay dividends in the long run.”
Solanoir events include exhibitions, performances and tours August 7 through 21, with details at Solanoir.com.
On Friday, August 18, and Saturday, August 19, artists will continue working on murals between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and on Sunday, August 20, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Here's a map of sites around the Crossroads Arts District.
Art Alley is located between 17th and 18th Streets near Locust and Cherry in Kansas City, Missouri.
KCUR's Laura Spencer contributed to this report.