MLK Mural: Creating the Next Greatest Generation — One Wall at a Time

Much ado has been made of the many ways in which Street Art turned a forgotten and neglected stretch of inner city Miami into a hip and happening hotspot. And as more and more of the world’s cities attempt to mimic Wynwood’s remarkable success, it’s a cinch much more ado will be made still.

What’s given much less ado are the many ways in which Street Art helps to turn around the lives of kids who live in those previously forgotten and neglected stretches of inner cities. But whether it’s something as seemingly simple as engagement or something as dreamfully pursued as a career, there is a there there. And it matters.

Few folks know this better than Kyle Holbrook, founder and guiding force behind MLK Mural. Named to honor the past, reflect the present, and ensure a future for all concerned, Moving the Lives of Kids began back in 2002 as a summer program for at risk youth in Holbrook’s hometown just outside of Pittsburgh. Thirteen years later and the organization has grown into a year-round phenomenon that peppers America and spans from the Bahamas to Uganda. With this remarkable success, Holbrook has quite literally illustrated how a single stroke can go on to change the way the world turns.

Kyle Holbrook

Miami in particular has reaped much of the rewards brought about by Holbrook’s single stroke belief system. In Overtown a previously invisible stretch of NW 1st Avenue now heralds the exploits of the Negro American League’s oddly-named and richly-historied Ethiopian Clowns; in Little Havana, a 14-story tall version of Mother Earth adorned in traditional Cuban patterns and flora can be seen from I-95; in Opa-Locka, the bare walls surrounding the playfield of an affordable housing complex became the scene of one particularly joyous 2013 Christmas Season; and in Little Haiti, blocks upon blocks boast vivid and accomplished testaments to the home country’s robust culture, heritage and history.

Just this weekend, MLK Mural unveiled new additions to the series siding the Little Haiti Soccer Park. The latest batch of action is fronted by the efforts of an international array of artists (including Santiago Rubino, Alex Void, Jose Mertz, Caratoes, Derek Hunter, Abstrk and Chytea) and backed by some of our town’s most benevolent organizations (among them The Pinnacle Foundation, the Green Family Foundation, The Knight Foundation, Louis Wolfson Foundation, and the Miami Foundation). It’s also, as always, as much a hallmark to the lives of those who call this neighborhood home, as it is a benchmark of achievements to come.

But don’t think for a moment the art stops here. Right now the indefatigable Holbrook is spreading MLK Mural’s great good endeavors in Ireland; England, France and Germany are next. Despite what seems like perpetual crunch time, the man whose efforts continue to inspire promise and impact lives paused long enough to share a chunk of his story with Culture Designers.

For those who don’t yet know, what exactly is Moving the Lives of Kids?

MLKmural of Moving Lives of Kids is a non-profit organization specializing in public art. The goal is to use art as a vehicle to enhance environments aesthetically while inspiring, educating, and including populations with special needs and at risk youths.

Northwestern High school students helping paint bus shelters in Liberty City with Kyle Holbrook and Wolf

Northwestern High school students helping paint bus shelters in Liberty City with Kyle Holbrook and Wolf

Who came up with the bright idea (and when) what spurred it into being?

I founded the organization as a way to provide alternatives to gangs, drugs and violence to the youth in my community. I saw many of my friends/peers disappear to murder before I was 25. In some respects it’s a case of life imitating art (you have so-called artists saying gangs are cool); it’s also a case of not being cognizant of other opportunities in life other than rap, drugs or football. Art is the universal language and it in some way impacts everyone, whether it’s through fashion, cars, TV or Instagram (lol). Art is a way to make change.

Is the acronym a nod to the Good Dr. Martin Luther King?

One of our first big projects was the Dr. Martin Luther King Busway Project that united nine unique diverse communities in Pittsburgh — rich/poor, black/white, Crips/Bloods. So when we moved into other communities it seemed right to take the inspiration learned from Dr. King and from living his dream through our projects to a new name inspired by his name.

Where was MLK’s first mural (and who were the artists)?

Our first mural was in Wilkinsburg, PA on Penn Ave in the heart of the community where I grew up and lost so many. Kids organically began to come help although that was not the initial plan. My mom and dad were both teachers, and through them I began to realize the impact a public art project can have on a community and on a child’s life.

How many cities now have MLK Murals?

We now have done projects in 17 US cities and 10 different countries. I am in Ireland now; I go to London on Saturday and Germany in two weeks. Then I’m back to Miami for some murals, then back to Pittsburgh (July 1-August 15) we are doing 156 murals employing 100 youth at $1,200 per.

How many artists and kids would you estimate have participated in the program?

Over 6,000 youth and artists have been employed by MLK. We have Community Paint Days as part of most of our projects where the — families, youth, senior organizations and other members of the community are encouraged to come out and paint. If we count all the Community Paint Days and include all the volunteers, it has to be well over 25,000 people have participated! The people don’t have to be artists — art is like a fingerprint “we all make a different mark” — that’s what makes it fun!

Aside from the artists, who were early stage MLK’s most pivotal supporters?

In 2002, Mrs. Baker, who owns Images Gallery in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, got me the Wilkinsburg mural I mentioned earlier. She is amazing! Great energy! Heinz Endowments was an early supporter, as was Pittsburgh’s (now defunct) Multicultural Arts Institute, where Demetria Gibson gave me a lot of advice I continue to use today. I lost my dad to cancer in my arms when I was 18 and just kicked out of my third high school and guys like my Uncle Ira, Marcus Harvey, Larry Kuzmanko and Nikki Geanopulous really came through. I owe these men a lot. They each showed me different positive things about life, business and being a leader. So many people…

And since then?

Louis Wolfson III is a great mentor to me now. His humble compassion for good, business savvy and great family man have inspired me to be a better man in all walks of life. His company Pinnacle Housing Group is a huge supporter of the programs MLKmural does.

Who all helped to make the Little Haiti Soccer Park Mural Project?

LHSP was a three year project started in collaboration with Little Haiti Cultural Center, Little Haiti Parks, and the Little Haiti NET Office. The Green Family Foundation gave us our first grant. The Knight Foundation and Miami Foundation have given us generous support. And Pinnacle Housing granted us the means to bring artists Caratoes in from Hong Kong, Axel Void over from Spain and Augustine up from Haiti. That took the project to the next level.

This isn’t MLK’s first foray into Little Haiti, is it?

We opened an office in Miami in 2010 after completing a 50 mural run in Haiti that was funded by the United Nations as an economic burst and beautification project. We employed 7,000 Haitians after the earthquake and fell in love with the culture and art. In Miami we subsequently did murals at 12 Big Nights in Little Haiti for The Rhythm Foundation, one in which we premiered my movie The Art of Life, facilitated the Earthquake remembrance mural in Jan 2011, mural for the Caribbean Market.

Big Night in Little Haiti, photo by Luis Olazabal

Big Night in Little Haiti, photo by Luis Olazabal

Do you think it’ll be the last?

Not a chance! I don’t want to jinx anything, but there are many, many, many, many more projects in Little Haiti coming soon.

Is there a particular dream project you’re working on seeing through?

Very excited about a dream project coming up this August 1 in Israel where we are doing a mural with Palestinian and Israeli children about Peace. Blessed.

Is there anyone you’d like to Thank and/or Cite before we go?

Special thanks to my mother and late father for always believing in me and requesting any and all cards be hand drawn as opposed to purchased! I urge all parents to encourage their kids. I encourage my daughter Kyla, she is the reason, the Inspiration for my life!

WORDS BY John Hood


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