By Shanna O’Mara
The windows are boarded up, the sidewalk is cracked, and the yard is overgrown. It’s just another run-down building in the heart of downtown Trenton — but wait, turn the corner. A breathtaking mural, ten times the size of any person who may lay eyes on it, aesthetically enriches what used to be a plain brick wall with a magnificent mix of brightly colored paints.
Students from the Rider Achievement Program (RAP), a program designed to help undergraduates transition from high school to college, took a tour of Trenton’s rich landscape of graffiti murals on Nov. 6.
“I tend to annoy a lot of people in authoritative positions because I don’t ask,” Trenton artist Will “Kasso” Condry said. “I just do. But I have the community support, so there’s nothing [authorities] can do to me, legally. I put stuff up that’s going to ruffle some feathers. It might make you uncomfortable, but that’s the point of art. You’re supposed to question things. Art isn’t about the money, but about getting your point across.”
Drs. James Dickinson and Victor Thompson of the sociology department volunteered to take students on no-cost trips into cities such as Philadelphia and Trenton to view amateur artwork produced from spray cans.
“Each mural was unique,” sophomore elementary education major Ashley Leeds said. “They represented different significant figures, historical events and stories that hold close to the community.”
This community has earned a bad reputation over the past few decades, as the town moves away from industrial growth and toward illegal activity.
“Trenton is a very depressed town,” Condry said. “You may hear gunshots and see people smoking crack. The only positive press this town gets is from the arts. So I do my best to keep that in the inner city, to bring people up.”
One mural that has lifted spirits in Trenton was painted in an abandoned lot on East Hanover Street; it is now called the Gandhi Garden. The garden is filled with repurposed decorations such as rubber tire flowerpots and repainted wooden benches. Adorned with Gandhi’s famous quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” this mural has attracted quite a crowd.
“Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, [Arun Gandhi], actually came here in June 2013,” Condry said. “He was speaking in Philadelphia and saw a brochure about the garden. He came by on his way back to his home in Rochester, New York.”
Condry began painting in Trenton more than 10 years ago with the S.A.G.E coalition, a nonprofit founded in Trenton in 2012 dedicated to initiating, planning, and establishing inner-city beautification projects. Condry’s first spray paint portrait that earned local praise as well as national attention was one of Martin Luther King Jr.
While painting, Condry battled 15-degree temperatures, an inconveniently placed bees’ nest and a torrential downpour.
“It started raining, so the community came out,” he said. “They brought flashlights and umbrellas so we could finish. It took 12 hours to complete it. It’s been 10 years, and I still think it looks pretty good. Hopefully I can redo it next year, if not this spring.
“The beautiful thing is that you can always redo it. You can always put another coat of paint on it, and it’s great because the people who lived here 10 years ago aren’t here anymore. Your audience is constantly changing, and the politics are constantly changing.”
Within five years, Trenton buildings were covered in murals, including one of Mike Brown on the corner of North Broad and Hanover streets. While the riots in Ferguson were occurring, Condry wanted to start a conversation about racial profiling, but Trenton police painted over the portrait within a week.
“A lot of my walls have been taken down,” Condry said. “They try to squeeze me out, but I’m still here. When you paint something on the street, you can’t get attached to it. You put it up, take your picture, then it’s the community’s. You can’t fall in love with any wall you put up.”
One wall that is regulated and protected by the city is at Terracycle. Dubbed the “Wall of Fame” by Condry, this wall is painted annually by artists from all over the world, including those from Europe, Africa and the United States.
Leeds believes that Trenton is moving away from characterization by crimes involving drugs and violence and instead expanding its creativity.
“I definitely think that Trenton is moving toward being known for art because many impoverished people use art as a form of expression,” Leeds said. “I definitely encourage more Rider students to go see these walls. They are so empowering and interesting.”
Printed in the 11/11/15 edition.