Mural masters

From left, artist Dylan Kelly, photographer and videographer Sam

It’s a sweltering Tuesday afternoon as Sam Burks lounges on a
cushioned barstool, legs comfortably propped on a scaffold behind a
weathered building on Railroad Street. Full story
It’s a sweltering Tuesday afternoon as Sam Burks lounges on a cushioned barstool, legs comfortably propped on a scaffold behind a weathered building on Railroad Street.

Paper-rolled cigarette in hand, he’s about to recite a quote. It’s going to be inscribed on the back cement wall of the 9Lives Club at 7430 Monterey St. in downtown Gilroy.

Friend and muralist Dylan Kelly interrupts.

“Wait – read it epic,” he suggests. “Like William Shatner.”

Pausing to channel his best rendition of Captain Kirk from “Star Trek,” Burks takes a drag, then proceeds.

“We are a grain of sand in the holy circle of life. Respect the land, and take care of it. In turn, it will take care of you. All of nature is within us. We contribute to the world around us. It is possible to see with the light of the heart, even in darkness.”

Taking in the brand-new, 48-by-25-foot mural of mystical-looking American chiefs, quizzical animal figurines and a glowing garlic bulb with ribbony ponytail of swirling leaves, you wouldn’t guess the scene painted by Kelly, 26, and fellow Gilroy artist Luis Rivas, 21, is a “punishment” with a proactive twist. Thanks to cross-collaboration between business owner, landlord, police and public defender, a potential litigation headache for Kelly and Rivas turned into a positive approach to graffiti abatement.

“It’s definitely a blessing in disguise,” agrees Burks, 23, of the vandalism citation issued Feb. 10 that spawned a vibrant composition of acrylic and aerosol paint. The work now enlivens the nucleus of an alley Kelly says “has a reputation for being grimy and trashed.”

Kelly and Rivas are the painters, while Burks photographed and filmed the endeavor for a documentary.

Seven months ago, Kelly – a 2003 Gilroy High School alumni who recently returned to the Garlic Capital after living and working as a Bay Area artist – was traipsing through state-owned property with Rivas. The two were en route to a “graffiti mural sanctuary” nestled in southwest Gilroy off Bolsa Road. The local relic is a “secret passed down to generations of muralists” since 1972, according to Kelly.

Burks, a lanky character with blond, shaggy hair, was also in tow on this particular trip – tagging along with his camcorder to document the subculture praxis of “guerilla muraling.” The friends define “guerilla mural” as an active space, frequented by artists who constantly change, refresh or enhance the work of previous visitors. Kelly underscores the style of community art as sticking to a designated area.

While the act isn’t fueled by the sake of senseless damage, Kelly acknowledges: Painting on state or privately owned property is illegal.

“Before I even got down there, I saw the sheriff’s truck pull up,” he chuckles, recalling getting caught with incriminating aerosol canisters. “I gave Sam and Luis the cop look.”

Adjusting a paintbrush tucked behind his left ear, Kelly examples the discreet facial code for “uh-oh. police.” He contorts his expression into a bug-eyed, sheepish grin.

The encounter has a happy ending thanks to Benny Salcido, the Santa Clara County public defender assigned to the case. Salcido proposed an alternative solution: The young men did time with a paintbrush.

“We saw the opportunity and went for it,” said Kelly of the arrangement agreed upon by 9Lives Owner Jorge Briones, his landlord Gary Walton and Rachel Munoz, Community Services officer for the Gilroy Police Department. “I felt, ‘this is gonna be awesome. We can finally do this.'”

As public services negotiations were smoothed out in court, a district attorney suggested Kelly get in touch with GPD Sgt. Munoz.

“I have a lot of experience with booking and promotions,” said Kelly. “Munoz gave me some contact information, and I hit the ground running.”

Several meetings, emails and phone calls later, the project kicked into motion and was almost complete by late Wednesday afternoon.

Glancing up at the near-finished work, Kelly muses, “half of it is planned, and half of it is spontaneity and what the wall is offering us.”

Marked by splashes of freckles, tattooed forearms and red hair tucked into a bun, Kelly is a free-spirited beatnik – laid back in paint-splattered pants cut off at the calf, paired with a Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirt. He speaks eloquently and with refreshing honesty about representing “young talent and a creativity in this town that is under-represented.”

While living in San Francisco and Oakland, Kelly graduated from the Academy of Art in 2009, was a curator of underground art shows, built installations for exhibits, facilitated public murals and coordinated urban youth arts programs. Recently out of work and residing in Gilroy, he’s open to taking on more projects.

Rivas, Kelly’s quieter but no less gifted comrade, is a 2009 alumni of Mt. Madonna Continuation High School. He’s collaborated on several community-oriented art projects, including a 13-plywood panel of underwater creatures displayed at the Gilroy Arts Alliance Interim Center for the Arts. Rivas attended the Art Institute of Chicago for one year, but “decided to come back to Gilroy because I’m broke,” he chuckled.

While the unexpected confrontation with the law “sucked at first,” Rivas admits, the end product “turned out great.”

On brainstorming with Walton for 9Lives mural concepts, Kelly said “I’ve done business with building owners before. He’s very open-minded. He’s the opposite of what I expected.”

In addition to setting an example for dealing with taggers in Gilroy, local developer and downtown advocate Walton says the freshly painted opus deters vandalism and heightens awareness of aesthetic possibility downtown. He candidly refers to Gilroy’s alley’s as “the most blighted, neglected areas.”

As for 9Lives owner Jorge Briones, he couldn’t be more pleased. He’s wanted to jazz up the club’s exterior since leasing the building in November 2010.

“The amount of traffic that goes through that alleyway is unbelievable. It’s a good thing for everybody. It’s something better to look than the back of an ugly brown building,” he says. “In downtown Gilroy, there is quite a bit of wall art that’s already out there. Hopefully this kind of spurs more.”

Walton, who owns several historic buildings including Lizarran Restaurant and Garlic City Books, is also weary of the thousands of dollars in fix-it bills generated by weekly tagging. On Walton’s count, 9Lives has been assaulted 50 to 60 times since he purchased the building in February 2005.

“Generally, it’s kind of thought that people respect other people’s art, so hopefully it will prevent some of the other things that are not so attractive,” he said.

Completed in Kelly’s self-imposed deadline of two weeks, the now finished 9Lives mural stands commanding and attractive, hailing locals with a gargantuan splash of color as they drive into town westbound on Sixth Street.

“I wanted a garlic, because there can’t be a mural in Gilroy without a garlic,” said Kelly, motioning to the obvious.

The cement canvas features a rolling landscape draped in merging hues of moonlight from the left and sunlight to the right. Two Native American figures flank either side of a rotund garlic bulb, which pops in subtle highlights of mixed blues and buttery yellows. Eye-catching minutiae such as quizzical wildlife creatures peek from corners.

Preliminary mural sketches included criteria such as a positive social message or consciousness, coupled with indigenous philosophies centered on renewal and preservation. It’s homage to South County culture, emblazoned with vitality through a “graf-style” that’s “colorful and exciting and psychedelic,” Kelly says.

To read the quote, you have to stand directly beneath the building’s awning and look up. The letters are written on the underside of the roof’s ledge.

When asked where the words of wisdom are excerpted, Kelly replies, “I went into a desert following a coyote, and came across an ancient pueblo, where an old wise man was sitting, and we had a conversation, and he told me to live my life by these quotes.”

That’s his sense of humor talking.

Parts of the axiom actually comes from “some random, obscure poster I found.”

Backing out of the shade and into the afternoon sun, Kelly gazes at the two-story visage. Rivas – a fellow of few words – is perched quietly several feet above the ground, dangling his legs from the scaffold while painting intricate details by hand. Reggae plays in the background from a portable stereo.

Having grown up in Gilroy, Kelly understands engagement with local artists and infusion of public aesthetic “is needed.”

“We’ve been getting so many compliments from all walks of life,” he adds, of feedback from locals. “People with prison tattoos, old ladies, tourists, little kids. Everybody is really stoked.”

As of Thursday, the vandalism charges were officially dropped. Kelly said the District Attorney told him tagging scenarios don’t usually play out like this, “‘but your guys’ case is dismissed. Have a good day.'”

The group plans on dedicating the mural to those who made it possible.

“Gary, Rachel, Jorge and Benny.”

9Lives reception

– The 9Lives Club will host a free unveiling of a two-story mural from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday at 7430 Monterey St. in downtown Gilroy.

– A concert for patrons 21 and older will follow, featuring the metal group Dimidium and alternative rock group Time and Pressure. Entertainment lasts from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. The cost is $5 or free if you dress as a Native American.

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