As part of the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services’ weeklong “Hip-Hop Symposium 16–The Revolution Age” event, Rochester-native Shawn Dunwoody spoke to students on Tuesday Feb. 23, describing his artistic endeavors by noting the purpose of his current initiative: “Creating is about being there with people.” To begin his presentation, Dunwoody discussed the historic significance of graffiti—typically regarded as an act of vandalism—as an important form of self-expression and personal “branding” for the artists who create it.
Dunwoody’s current art initiative transforms urban buildings and objects into canvases featuring positive sayings, words and decoration designed to foster a greater community spirit in areas that desperately need it.
Working in conjunction with the Rochester community, Dunwoody was initially asked to paint portraits of prominent members of the community or those with historical relevance, such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. He soon realized, though, that communities evolve quickly and that these types of portraits would lose their significance once the people who had requested them moved on. Furthermore, new generations would come along with fewer ties to these types of portraits.
Taking this into account along with the evolved perception of commercialized graffiti––both in mainstream advertising and in art pieces with expensive price-tags—Dunwoody decided to create his own version of graffiti advertising for positivity with “words to live by.” In Dunwoody’s mind, words don’t lose their meaning like images do and they will have a longer-lasting impression.
Dunwoody has done projects all over Rochester, which he said helped him expand happiness and increase a sense of community connections. He told a story about one of his murals—the words “Believe in U” on a simple blue background—which he was asked to paint on a building located on a street corner that has a reputation for being dangerous.
During its creation, people in the neighborhood informed Dunwoody that the area he was painting in was Blood territory—a gang whose color is red. Their rival gang—the Crips—identifies with the color blue.
Despite this, Dunwoody said he witnessed a lot of positivity in response to the finished artwork, with people on the corner repeating the saying by using it as a greeting to other people they met on the street. He also talked about watching a mother read the mural to her young child, a prime example of the positive impact that Dunwoody hopes to have with his work—especially with youth community members.
Dunwoody explained that he is interested to see if he can “tip the scale” in dangerous neighborhoods by applying his art to what is already present in the community. He is currently working in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Rochester, making graffiti art while also working on other projects such as a community fruit garden and glow-in-the-dark crosswalks that will improve visibility on dangerous streets at night.
For Dunwoody, his work is about using movement and shape to give meaning to the simple things around us—such as blank walls and empty lots—and creating connections where they may not exist. While change such as this is not always easy, Dunwoody’s commitment to creating art that radiates happiness, positivity and a willingness to make communities stronger is a way of making these changes stick.