At street art festival, participants bring varied palette of skills

Jason Harrington (right) is founder and director of the SpraySeeMO mural festival. | Naomi Klinge/Missouri Business Alert

Over a dozen people sat in a small building near the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City, exchanging stories and laughs over dinner. In the lot behind the building, three men painted a truck-sized mural of a nude woman; a wall nearby featured a painting of a Native American man in a traditional headdress.

Artists, their supporters and others in the community came together in September to put on the third year of the SpraySeeMO Mural Festival.

Over 40 artists painted in the festival. Some came from around the country, while others were born and raised in Kansas City. The event brought together artists with different stories and backgrounds, but they all seemed to know the struggle of running their own creative business.

A full-time job

Jason Harrington started the festival in 2017. He wanted to bring in people from all over the region.

“Maybe it inspires them to kind of go out and create what we created here,” Harrington said.

Harrington’s art is his full-time job, and he makes it a point to support artists and their businesses with the festival.

The event’s sponsors, most prominently American Shaman CBD, paid for all travel costs for the artists to come to Kansas City, plus accommodation, food and materials for their murals. Artists are all paid a $500 commission, something Harrington is trying to increase.

“Even to get it to $1,000 a person would be phenomenal,” Harrington said, “and we’d probably be known around the world as a premier event that takes care of its artists.”

Gallery: See the process involved in one artist creating a street art mural.

Local businesses donate their walls to the festival, which adds to the dozens of murals scattered across the city.

For some, being an entrepreneur in the arts means running a one-person business. Artists often handle their own operations, contracts, billing and other administrative tasks – and yet, negotiating for fair pay is a struggle they deal with all the time.

“Go out there and take every opportunity you can and do it for free. And then as soon as you’re getting paid, never do it for free again,” Harrington suggested for anyone trying to join the industry.

The middleman

Enter Brandon Baker, an agent that helps connect mural painters with local businesses. He created the company KC Graffiti a year and a half ago when he noticed people taking pictures of artwork without tagging the artists.

“My whole goal boils down to helping bring awareness to the artist,” Baker said. “I wanted to give them recognition.”

Phoenix-based artist MDMN uses a variety of different media to create his murals. This mural is located in a parking lot in the Crossroads Arts District. | Naomi Klinge/Missouri Business Alert

Baker talks to local businesses that may want a mural painted on their walls and connects them with the best artist for the job. Baker said he hears the usually vague ideas the businesses have for the artwork and knows which artists will best match that artistic vision.

A single artist often wears “numerous hats,” Baker said. Sometimes they are the only person in a small business, so they are forced to do administrative and operational tasks that take time away from their art. Considering many artists also work full-time jobs, Baker said he wanted to help out and give them as much time as possible to work on the art they’ve been commissioned to do.

“The artists, they want to paint,” Baker said, “so I’ll do anything I can do to help them.”

Finding time

An artist who goes by the name Erye faces the struggle every day to find time for both his job and his art. He said he often works 12 hours a day as a consultant for a health information company, so by the time he gets home he can be too exhausted to work on his art.

“I usually don’t sleep too much,” Erye said, “and I often feel like I don’t do enough.”

Dee Thurn, a local artist who also participated in the festival last year, painted a mural outside of Le Fou Frog, captured here while still in progress. | Naomi Klinge/Missouri Business Alert

At the festival, Erye — who asked to be identified only by his pseudonym — painted a blue-and-red scene with a figure playing guitar and another dancing along, a style and theme that represent the band merchandise he is often commissioned to design. Since he also works full-time, Erye said he couldn’t finish by the end of the week. As a local artist, though, he was able to go back and keep painting after the festival is over.

With people like Harrington and Baker working to help the artists, Erye was hopeful SpraySeeMO could elevate the local arts culture.

“I can’t say better things about what they do for the art community,” Erye said.

Hear more: Jason Harrington discusses SpraySeeMO on the Speaking Startup podcast.

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