By Kathryn Greene
From graffiti to more traditional forms of art, a drive or streetcar ride through Kansas City reveals plenty of street art and murals to marvel at. Some have deeper meanings with nods to Kansas City’s rich history while others are just brightening up the block. Behind each is a creative mind with a story to tell.
Get to know some of Kansas City’s most prominent visual artists:
Rif Raf Giraffe
Others may stumble their way into art or happily find themselves on the artist path after a few seemingly random decisions, but for Rif Raf Giraffe (aka Jason Harrington), there was never a plan B. After studying art at Johnson County Community College, Harrington transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago. “I remember telling someone one time that if I didn’t make it as an artist I had no idea what I was supposed to do,” he says.
He has since returned to KC, and his work is a trippy meeting point of bright colors and cartoonish images while maintaining a coherent aesthetic to keep it recognizable. If you had any doubts, look closely—you might spot his signature giraffe in the corner or background of a piece. Although he doesn’t always include one, he does so often and when it fits with the composition.
Harrington and his wife have big plans for Kansas City’s art scene—hoping to make the Crossroads Arts District (and Kansas City in general) one of the largest mural parks in the country.
It’s almost impossible to venture through the city without seeing a wall or mural created by Donald J. Ross aka “Scribe,” arguably the most visible street artist in Kansas City. Throughout his career, Ross has refined the self-contained universe he created with recurring characters like Rhumpus the Rhino and Sumego, a beaver. See enough of his works and you’ll start to recognize them. Their presence makes each mural seem interconnected like different scenes from a Scribe-penned comic book.
In addition to his public projects, Scribe continues to push the boundaries about what public art can mean and be to an audience. As the artist-in-residence at Children’s Mercy, he creates a whimsical world for patients. Several years ago, he also collaborated on a tactile mural for the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired.
With equally interesting street and legal names, it seems as though Brew Lamb aka Spaceship Zulu has always been destined for the art world. Since answering an open call for a Downtown mural several years ago and emerging the winner, Lamb has made his mark on Kansas City with his comic book-inspired pop art. It’s easy to see his influences—Warhol and Lichtenstein—in his bold work, which is set apart by a unique stenciling technique. Many muralists will paint on the spot, but Lamb instead spends those hours in a studio where he’ll put on some reggae and cut out a form. Once he hits the streets, the process goes quickly.
For him, the medium can be just as important as the piece itself. “Not everybody wants to see the same type of art,” Lamb says. Or even in the same type of way. “It’s super interesting how street art is becoming more mainstream art and it’s looked at as a valuable item and not just something that can be painted over.”
Although Lamb has lived in several different places, he says he can’t say that there is anywhere else quite like Kansas City. “The people are unique and our city is thriving on art.”
Think of Alexander Austin as an unorthodox historian of Kansas City. Instead of authoring or filming a documentary, however, he brings it to life with paint. One of his most notable works is a mural that fronts the Power & Light District, an homage to the golden age of Kansas City jazz with references to 18th & Vine and Count Basie.
Another piece, located on the Two Light apartment building, is a nod to the Negro Leagues. While his historical references aren’t limited to the metropolitan area (he’s painted images of Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela), they all are done in his signature cool-toned aesthetic. Keep an eye out for his art, and you’ll probably learn something in the process, too.
Sike Style Industries
Brooklyn-born Phil Shafer had made his way to Kansas City’s art scene by the late ‘90s. Back then, he was Sike Style and started out pasting posters and stickers under the veil of anonymity that nighttime lends.
“I got my start as a street artist going out at night and putting up art for people to find in the morning.” Shafer doesn’t consider himself a street artist anymore, however, and now goes by Sike Style Industries. “I've worn many hats over the years,” he says. “As a graphic designer, DJ, curator, fine artist, lecturer and muralist as of late … now I have evolved that into a business as a muralist.”
The graphic designer in Shafer, however, still comes through clearly in his art, which utilizes bold colors and clean lines. “My goal is to transform bland or vandalized surfaces into murals that uplift and inspire the neighborhood residents,” he says.
“Whether it is through the use of Maya Angelou quotes painted on bricks or abstract shapes of color sprayed on a doorway, the idea that public art can change a space and help people feel pride in their surroundings is important to me.”
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In Kansas City, public art is in plain view, no matter where you're standing. Discover some of the most iconic murals and sculptures in the City of Fountains.