Street art inspires August Martin students

A survey of 500 August Martin students showed that they were unhappy with the plain white wall. The 5Pointz artists changed that.
Photo by Bill Parry

August Martin High School is known as the “worst school” in New York with a graduation rate of 39 percent.

Students attending August Martin often describe their school as a jail or mental institution, however, their description does not apply to a too strict faculty or over-representation of school safety officers.

The students are directly describing the bleak walls, which to them embodied their low motivation levels to care much about anything education wise.

Latchmi “Tanya” Johnson, a junior and member of the school’s Future Project, felt she was already set up to fail and for that reason loathed going to classes as a freshman and sophomore. “I never wanted to come to school because it felt like a jail cell. It was so boring, so unappealing I didn’t feel welcomed at all,” Johnson said. “My freshman year I really wanted to drop out, I felt depressed and I had really bad grades.”

The time to make a change in her school presented itself through the Dream Team led by Syreeta Gates. With Gates’ supervision, the Dream Team launched “Operation Skittles” – a plan to decorate 100 percent of August Martin’s walls.

“Each Dream director has a Dream Team and my Dream Team chose Operation Skittles,” Gates said. “The goal was to transform 100 percent of the hallways so that was what sparked everything. Out of that they did a series of things, first was creating a proposal then getting 500 surveys done and majority of the surveys said that students weren’t proud of their school building.”

Johnson and her peers agreed that the stark walls offered no sense of motivation to encourage students to come and stay in school.

“I was in a lonely place and the vibe I got from the school made it worse,” Johnson said. “We wanted to get the school to look like this because if students feel welcomed then they’re definitely going to want to come to school and learn. Comparing the attendance from now to back then we have more kids coming into school nowadays and they’re staying.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to get the student body to decorate the walls themselves, the Dream Team reached out to 5Pointz. Over 100 street artists descended upon August Martin transforming their hallways into their own canvases.

The artists were given free reign with few constricts including no pornography or racism. From the basement to the third floor, the hallways are covered in bright colored murals, portraits, quotes of majority school-related themes.

“We were honored to have an amazing partnership with 5Pointz curators and artists who volunteered their time and their paint,” Gates said.

With the completion of the murals, Johnson and her friends feel that the attitude in their school has changed noting that their friends are happier and they’ve seen less fights in the hallways.

“Recently, there haven’t been a lot of fights but like two months before this project was completed there was a really big fight that was gang related but since this has happened it changed the vibe and brought a different attitude for everybody,” Johnson said.

“It’s so beautiful seeing the art all over the walls. The art is speaking to you,” Cassidy Thomas, a junior at August Martin, added.

“I think the art inspires students to come to school even more,” Lasonia Whervin said.

Despite the positive feedback from students and faculty alike, many are unhappy with the new art in the hallways. Likening the art to be no better than graffiti created by vandals, Johnson and Gates both believe that the new artwork has a positive influence on August Martin’s student body.

“Now with this art on the walls it creates a new conversation that can be had,” Gates said. “Teachers can now add the art in their curriculum, students can now say ‘I learned what the difference between a graffiti piece and street art is and how that applies to my English class.’ Art has consistently changed the conversation.”

“Ever since I’ve seen all the graffiti on the wall I can’t help but say ‘wow I was a part of this,’” Johnson said.

Since Operation Skittles’ completion, Johnson is focusing on getting her grades up in hopes of attending college to pursue a career in medicine like her mother or possibly in law.

“I want to follow my mom in her footsteps within the medical field or the business and law field. Ever since this project was done, I’ve been coming to school more happier and if I can make a change in a big school than maybe I can become a person who can get good grades and be someone who is inspirational,” Johnson said.

Reach reporter Alley Olivier at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at aoliv[email protected] Follow Alley on Twitter @All3Y_B.

More from Around NYC