Kalamazoo builds graffiti wall to give artists a safe place to paint

KALAMAZOO, MI — Worried the police are going to stop you from spray-painting your latest masterpiece at the city park?

Not on this wall.

To combat the issue of graffiti showing up on buildings in Kalamazoo, and to give artists a place to paint within the law, the Kalamazoo parks department constructed a designated wall that allows people to bring their own paint and create public art for all to see, within a set of guidelines.

The graffiti wall is located at Upjohn Park, not far from the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. The city is planning to build another such wall in spring 2023, Parks Director Patrick McVerry told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.

The graffiti wall at Upjohn Park was installed in September 2021. The location was chosen to help alleviate some of the graffiti at the nearby skate park, McVerry said.

Kalamazoo artist Guillermo Sotelo brought a graffiti wall idea to the city of Kalamazoo, and worked with city staff on the concept and rules and sign. It has been “very well received,” McVerry said, and people have already created some great art on the wall.

Sotelo is a 32-year-old artist living in Kalamazoo. You can check out his art on Instagram. He said the idea started with a similar project in Grand Rapids, where he is from, and where they built a graffiti wall in the city’s Creston neighborhood a few years ago.

“It’s a safe place for a graffiti artist to go to,” he said, describing the walls in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids where people can express themselves without fear of penalty.

Sotelo said he is a tagger, and gave a disclaimer that he did not start the project to stop graffiti or curb graffiti.

“I’m all about tagging wherever you can get your name out,” he said.

The Kalamazoo effort has been an awesome, community-driven project, Sotelo said.

“Wherever these walls pop up, it brings in the creativity,” Sotelo said.

He and his girlfriend recently began to do art full-time, and he thinks the graffiti walls can provide a nice canvas, especially for artists who want to try a larger-scale design for the first time, or anyone else who wants to paint it , he said.

Sotelo is mostly doing murals and commission work, as well as art shows, he said.

The first wall constructed in Kalamazoo was considered a pilot, and he is excited to see more added next year. He has painted on it a couple times, the artist said.

A design painted by Kalamazoo artist Guillermo Sotelo on the graffiti wall at Upjohn Park.

McVerry said it has been a great addition that the city developed to try and reduce the graffiti on buildings.

“There are a set of rules posted at the wall for artists to follow, and it has been very well received so far,” McVerry said.

The city plans to implement another wall in a park next spring, McVerry said. The city has not made the final decision on where it would be located yet, he said, but potentially Davis Street Park or Rockwell Park.

The wall at Upjohn Park is next to a skate park covered with graffiti.

“Graffiti at the skate park was not the initial idea, but after battling to keep the park free from graffiti we decided to allow it,” McVerry said. “The issue we faced with the painting was constant vulgar language.”

This seems to have subsided, and more recently artists have created some very good art at the skatepark, he said.

Assistant City Manager Rebekah Kik said graffiti walls, as well as the utility box art wrap projects, were identified in the Imagine Kalamazoo process to help deter graffiti and highlight artists/photography/community.

These projects were identified in 2018 and 2019 and the city was able to get funding to implement the utility box art project downtown. Kik said she assisted with a design for the graffiti wall that was constructed in UpJohn Park.

She is looking forward to any additional walls planned for the future, she said.

“This is another great example of taking community feedback and turning them into the projects that you see happening,” Kik said.

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