At Brooklyn Arts for Kids, a visual and performing arts program for children run by co-directors Belinda Blum and Eric “Wally” Wallach, kids are taught not to get stuck on what makes them uncomfortable. That ethos came in especially useful two weeks ago, when the kids found that the mural they’d spent weeks creating – one that read ‘community’ in cheerful, hand-painted letters embellished with images of unity and peace — had been defaced.
In their programs, which run during summer and fall, Wallach and Blum introduce kids to everything from mural-making to Shakespeare, and the programs are lauded as a space where kids can freely create and explore their budding artistic interests. This summer, Blum worked hard to offer that space, despite all the accompanying challenges. A mural seemed like the perfect project, and she fell upon a fifty-foot wall beneath an overpass on Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace, where the masked campers could safely spread out and work. Over three weeks, 24 kids — ranging in age from 6 to 13 years old – painted the images that came to mind when they thought of ‘community.’
“What the question was is, ‘what does this wall need? What does this community need?’” said Blum.
Some of the images were of flowers, peace signs, trees, and hearts. Others directly signified unity and equality: over the ‘O,’ painted to look like the earth, two hands of different colors reached toward each other. Inside the ‘M’ was written ‘Black Lives Matter.’ These latter two additions were the main ones targeted on August 25th by the vandals, who drew a line directly through them in black spray paint.
Blum and Wallach quickly called a Zoom meeting with the kids to discuss what had happened. “The kids were obviously very upset, because it was so soon after their completion,” said Wallach. “It was a month later.” They asked the kids to think about what they could do to address the damage, and then called everyone back together again.
“When 14 kids arrived, it was like the arrival of the Avengers getting back together,” said Wallach. “They were so empowered to come back, and we didn’t know what we were going to do. Belinda brought the paints, and we did what we do every summer. We stand in a circle, we breathe, we center ourselves, we listen to each other and how we’re feeling, and then we address the question of the day – what are we gonna do?”
Instead of painting over the vandalism, Blum explained, the kids decided to work around it. They turned the line crossing out ‘Black Lives Matter’ into a vine, and rewrote the message, even repeating it in several more spots throughout the mural. They wrote the words “we love” above the entire thing: the message now reads “We Love Community.” Wallach and Blum gave the kids complete creative freedom over the restoration, they said, and instructed them to always say ‘yes’ to their own ideas.
Kiera Nagle, a Ditmas Park resident whose son Mato participated in the mural this summer, said that her son was upset and confused by the vandalism.
“He was like, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe this happened. We worked so hard on that – why would anybody want to do that?” Nagle said that Mato wondered what motivated the vandalism and whether it was just some kids playing around, or people who disagreed with the statement the mural made.
Nagle was happy with how Blum and Wallach approached the restoration. The co-directors “opened the space for the kids to explore all the possibilities of what they could do to re-transform,” the mural, she said. “I think [the kids] felt more positive about it at the end. That even if there’s a mistake, or there’s an incident, or ill-will, we can still transform those things into something positive.”
Nagle’s own BLM sign had been stolen, she said, and others in her neighborhood had been stolen or vandalized. What happened with the mural was not an isolated incident, she believes.
“We can think that we live in liberal, blue Brooklyn, but there are those among us that don’t agree,” Nagle said. “We can’t let our messages get covered up, or stolen, or changed. We have to keep the message alive.”
Blum saw the experience as extremely valuable for the kids.
“They saw what happened. It’s upsetting, but then they got to just turn it around and they literally, actively did that. I think that was a really meaningful, powerful, unforgettable experience for these kids. You could tell,” she said. It was also, she said, a chance for the kids to experience firsthand the value of coming together as a community.
“Even if it gets defaced again, it doesn’t matter,” said Wallach. “These kids have the power in their own hands.”