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Painting the Scene

How the Topeka Mural Project became a blank canvas for change

Joe Perry poses at the Fourth Street Bridge mural project

From The Ichabod - Spring 2018

Lt. Joe Perry, aa ’96, bs ’97, is no artist. Far from it, in fact. But that hasn’t stopped him from advocating for one of the largest community art projects Topeka has seen.

In 2013, while serving as property crimes commander of the Topeka Police Department, Perry looked for ways to reduce the high property crime numbers in Topeka. He learned some communities reduce graffiti and vandalism by using the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design approach. Changing certain aspects of the environment can make it harder for property crime to take place.

“Criminals aren’t afraid of the police, they’re afraid of getting caught,” Perry said. “If there are no witnesses, they can get away with anything. But if you bring people to the area, you create witnesses and criminals no longer want to go in the area because of the higher potential of getting caught.”

One way to bring people to the area? Public art.

“Painting isn’t my thing, but I thought, what if I found someone else who does that for a living and see if they’ll partner with us,” Perry said.

A partnership is exactly what he found in ARTSConnect, a Topeka non-profit dedicated to expanding the arts and taking on new and innovative projects. A call to ARTSConnect led to a meeting the next day, and the Topeka Mural Project was born.

“We had been thinking about murals at ARTSConnect for similar reasons — community engagement, safety and tourism,” said Sarah Fizell, ARTSConnect executive director. “Knowing someone at the Topeka Police Department had an interest in this was different than me having an interest in this. There was a real possibility that these murals could do some good.”

Even though the first nine murals are in areas of higher property crimes, there are no reports of graffiti after the projects are completed, and there is an increase in property improvement in a half-mile radius surrounding each mural.

“We tell the community what we want to do, we ask them what they want to see on the mural and we get local artists to design concepts. When we’re ready to paint, we have the artists outline it on the wall, but the citizens are the ones to paint it on the wall,” Perry said. “When the citizens paint the wall, then they own it. They take pride in it and speak up if they think someone is going to deface it.”

Fizell says the partnership meets shared goals.

“We can abate graffiti and lessen property crime and vandalism with these murals, but they also line up with our broader community goals,” Fizell said.

The 10th and largest mural will be painted on a building across the street from the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The concept, designed by local artist Michael Toombs, focuses on themes of diversity, equality, justice and inclusion. The design includes several drawings by local magnet school children for the Living the Dream Arts Contest. With nearly 40,000 people visiting the landmark each year, the mural, 130 feet wide and 30 feet tall, is bound to become another point of interest.

“We want the mural to bring our community together and to improve the quality of life in the area,” Perry said. “But the message in this mural is so much bigger.”

The project is scheduled to be completed by June 2018, and Perry said, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With the current national discourse, there’s significant potential to help build bridges through community relations and police relations.

“We’re going to have the police, the artist, the community and civil rights leaders all painting a mural together,” Perry said. “Why can’t the movement of ‘Let’s work together to solve our problems’ start here and move to the entire country as well?”

Even though he’s no artist, Perry will be there to paint — along with his family, members of the Topeka Police Department, ARTSConnect, Downtown Topeka, Inc., Safe Streets and members of the community.

“We’re still making history in Topeka. We're still working toward Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream,” Perry said. “I wake up some days, and I can't believe I get to be a part of it”


Spring 2022 The Ichabod cover. Sculpture on the lawn north of Memorial Union

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