A freestyle canvas
How four artists improvised with sudden bursts of inspiration to transform an Oak Park coffee shop
It was just after midnight on a Tuesday in May, and the corner of Broadway and 32nd Street smelled like wet paint and weed. Local artists Demetris Washington, Brandon Alexander, Isaiah Williams and Saul McCoy stood on the corner watching paint dry, deciding the next step in completing a mural on the walls of Broadway Coffee in Oak Park.
Suddenly, Washington, who uses the artist name BAMR, strapped on a respirator mask, picked up a can of spray paint and went to work on the left corner of the building. Minutes later, after completing an outline, he picked up a new can and worked on the details of the character’s coffee-cup head.
“I think that’s my favorite part [of the mural], because I literally came up with that the night we started painting,” Washington said weeks after the project was finished. “We didn’t have any ideas for that corner. … The stuff that I actually planned, I didn’t really like as much as that one.”
In May, the four artists started collaborating on the mural, two months after a group of Kennedy High School students with the after-school program Target Excellence had started painting another wall of Broadway Coffee as a community service project.
The other three artists watched on as Washington turned a maroon-colored wall into the makings of the mural’s first character, which, much like the rest of the art, is vibrant and coffee-related. The sudden burst of inspiration set off a wave, and minutes later the others followed suit, working well into the night, finally wrapping up around 3 a.m.
“Once you get somebody’s tempo or speed, it’s kind of like freestyling on a beat or something,” McCoy said of the process. “Once somebody just steps up and hops on, you get their flow, then you ride the joint, then it becomes four different people on the same cypher.”
The project started before the artists even met. Williams had already begun working on the mural on the coffee shop’s 32nd Street side with his longtime friend Meleah Campbell and a group of students she mentors with Get Your Hustle On, a college-readiness program run through the nonprofit organization Target Excellence.
In March, Broadway Coffee co-owner Jimmy Gayaldo had told Campbell and her Target Excellence colleagues that he was calling around to area schools to get kids to paint the shop. After several of the high schools turned Gayaldo down, Campbell said she could get her students out to do it. Weeks later, a small group of her students from Kennedy High School spent a couple of days laying the foundation for something bigger.
“Most of the kids have never painted before, so it was cool to get them to try something new, especially during their spring break when they’d usually probably just be hanging out,” Campbell said.
With help from Williams, the students transformed a once white wall into a mural complete with buildings, trees and a bright orange sun on top of a sky blue with green, red and yellow stripes above. The group also added a large mug spilling coffee out into the city.
Fast-forward to May, and the coffee that originally spilled into the city, now flowed in a river into the Sacramento Valley instead. It was one of a few changes that Williams made to the mural’s design.
Later, as a separate project, two local artists GoopMassta and R2Romero replaced the old Broadway Coffee banner that hung above the students’ work with two new painted characters. And in time, Williams says, two more artists will put the finishing touches on the 32nd Street wall.
“As an artist, you never know what you’re going to come across as far as canvases. So when somebody hands you a canvas like this … I just saw it as an opportunity to spread the love, you know?” Williams said.
In the weeks leading up to the first day of painting, the artists met a few times and came up with options to present to the shop’s co-owner, Charles Bergson.
Sticking to the plan, however, proved to be a bit of an issue.
“A lot of the end result was a freestyle,” Washington said, laughing. “We didn’t really have the full idea completely together before we started painting, we just knew we wanted to start.”
By noon the second day, the blank maroon canvas was gone. Washington was working on his second character on the top right corner of the building, Alexander was painting on his signature clouds that would ultimately help tie the project together and McCoy was spraying the outline of his character between the shop’s large windows.
By day three much of the work on the front of the building was done, save for the little details in Washington’s and McCoy’s characters. The coffee-head character got some new additions—light bulbs floating over its head—and the shop’s white door was painted by GoopMassta to look like ice cubes and coffee splashing on the bottom. Eventually, even the shop’s mailbox was painted over.
Throughout the week, Alexander, who goes by the artist name BRNDN ALXNDR, and Washington completed the final side of the building near the adjacent vacant lot. It was painted the same maroon color, with only the “Broadway Coffee” tagging left alone. Alexander’s colorful clouds, Washington’s cartoonish depiction of a mug spilling coffee, and a light-bulb-powered hot-air balloon were added to the mix.
The end result has appealed to more than just the artists and the shop’s owners. Feedback from the community has been encouraging, too, Alexander said, with many passersby and customers pointing out the positive impact that four black men painting a mural could bring to Oak Park.
Alexander, who grew up in Del Paso Heights, one of Sacramento’s most impoverished neighborhoods, understands the bearing he and his fellow artists have on the community. Growing up in a struggling community like Del Paso Heights or Oak Park, it was unusual for a person of color to get such a chance.
“It’s so far-fetched that that’s even possible for somebody from these areas that [residents] can’t believe it,” Alexander said.
It’s not just about the opportunity, he added. It’s about the impact.
“It’s definitely a necessity, especially for [communities like Del Paso Heights and Oak Park], that people can identify with the artists,” he said.
To McCoy, it’s about the influence that the four of them have on the kids in the area—especially a group of school kids who got excited when they saw the mural going up.
“That was like the icing on the cake, because, like, we’re big kids anyways. I mean, spray cans are just big-ass crayons,” he said. “So to see the kids was just like, ’Wow.’ It was full circle, because I remember when I was little and seen somebody doing that, I would want to go pick up [a paintbrush].”