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PHOTOS: Wiley's Kansas City Street Art Beautifies Utility Boxes

On Central Standard in July, host Gina Kaufmann asked the Kansas City graffiti artist known as Gear to explain his theory that graffiti is “the beautification of the city.”

Most graffiti artists choose areas that are run-down or buildings that haven’t been taken care of by their landlords, Gear said.

“We’re doing a piece of artwork when before it was just ugly,” he said. “That’s kind of the way we look at the whole landscape. It’s like, ‘Ooh, that would be great for something colorful there, instead of some white wall or beige wall.”

An artist who signs his work “Wiley” has provided us with an illustration of this idea. This slideshow captures several of his Day of the Dead-inspired “sugar skulls” around Midtown and the West Side.

After he graduated from high school in 2003, Wiley went to the Kansas City Art Institute – but dropped out after a month because, he says, “I was a total mess from partying too much.”

He moved back to Houston, but a couple of times a year he comes back for what he calls an “art vacation” with a good friend he met during his brief stay at the Art Institute. (He chronicles one of those recent trips here.)

“I really like Kansas City. I like the beer, the brick buildings, the barbecue," he says. "People are nice, and the weather is nice compared to Houston. I come up there and hang out with buddies, mark art, drink beer, tag stuff.”

Wiley says he tries to avoid tagging private property, and generally favors plywood covering the walls of troubled buildings. “I figure the taxpayers own the utility boxes?”

Actually, a lot of them are owned by Kansas City Power & Light Co. But the skulls are stickers made with newsprint and two layers of stenciled-on paint (color on the bottom, black-and-white on top) and stuck on with wallpaper glue from Lowe’s, so they’ll weather off before too long.

Besides the fact that they’re striking and colorful, the sugar skulls seem to have a deeper layer of meaning: A skull on a utility box may be a comment about human consumption of electricity, climate change and all that.

But Wiley says he’s “not super big into deep meanings and stuff of that nature.” Being from Houston, he likes the vibrant colors and the Mexican style of work. “I wanted to make an image that was easy to see when you’re driving by.”

The thing is, once you’re looking for utility boxes in hope of spotting another piece of Wiley’s work, you start seeing utility boxes everywhere. Many more than you ever noticed before. Which can change the way the whole city looks.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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