The Mural of the Story | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Mural of the Story

For muralist Kyle Holbrook, and the neighborhood he grew up in, a lack of funding hasn't changed the complexion of their project.

It's a dark, cloudy Tuesday morning and it's threatening to rain on Kyle Holbrook. He and his friend Jayme Bailey are washing and priming a huge Prudential Rock-shaped wall in Wilkinsburg, part of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway "park and ride" portal. Holbrook has been plotting on it since at least last year, and had begun working on it the day before.

The block-long mural will tell the story of Wilkinsburg, beginning when it was thick with forests and trains were the public transit option until today, where it's thick with churches and Port Authority buses. At noon Holbrook is joined by about a dozen kids from the Boys and Girls Club, each armed with brushes. The kids stroke away as long and wide as their short arms will allow. Some draw figures and words. Some stand a couple feet back and just fling paint at the wall. Faces gaze out of buses that glide past.

As he paints, Holbrook appears stir crazy. He's having convulsions at the wall, swinging his brush at it like an orchestra composer gone mad. Between strokes he's pumping the kids up: "Get loose with it! Get free with it!" They're just doing the under-painting over which he'll place images: the Native Americans who originally settled here, the faces of local war veterans and those of some of his homies who lost their lives in the streets here.

By the afternoon, Holbrook's a mess. But you can't tell because it blends in with his couture: a fading Foot Locker polo and jeans that are poorly torn into shorts, so it looks like denim wings are flapping from his kneecaps. The entire outfit is splattered with paint that very well may have been there long before he got to the wall.

It's the second mural Holbrook's done in Wilkinsburg. His first is on the old Penn-Lincoln Hotel on Penn Avenue, the town's main business drag. In the two years since he did that one, he's done plenty of others: empty buildings Uptown, schools from Homestead to Northview Heights and shopping malls.

You see evolution. The Penn-Lincoln mural has floating heads and figures placed randomly throughout. Now he uses masking tape of different widths to create streaks of different lengths, going in different directions across the wall until they resemble the lines in your palm. Within each sectioned-off area he'll place an image. The result is a shattered mirror, where each cracked fragment has its own interpretation of the reflection.

He still uses orange as his backdrop now, as he did then.

"Orange is right where we want to be," he explains. "Red is too violent, but yellow is too punk, like you ain't standin' up for nothing. [With] red you standin' up, but you so angry you ain't even listenin' to nobody."

As usual, he employs many of the youth from the neighborhood he's painting in. It's his way of giving back -- especially in Wilkinsburg, where he grew up.

When approached by a scraggly-looking young man asking for a dollar to get something to eat, Kyle tells him that if he comes help paint, he'll feed him every day. The guy steps off and then returns with two others. Holbrook tells all the kids working with him that he'll get them paid if they come out and work on a regular basis.

But Holbrook may have to pay out his own pocket, if the funding he's applied for doesn't come through. The budget he's drafted for this project is $55,000, much of which would be used to cover his and his workers' costs. He expected to have that by July 15. On July 19, when he began work on the mural, he had received only $8,000 from the Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative. The rest was to come from the Wilkinsburg Weed and Seed program, a program subsidized by the U.S. Department of Justice to weed out criminals and plant seeds for community redevelopment. It's not certain more money will come.

If the missing 85 percent of his budget has Holbrook rattled, you wouldn't know it. He's out there with his buckets and pans of paint, paint rollers, brushes and piles of masking tape. Undeterred. Don't mistake his work for "graffiti," he'll kindly correct you. But he possesses the same spirit, which means he's not compelled to pursue license to paint what he considers "the people's wall."

He continues to paint and to bring any children who are willing into the fold. And while waiting for the rest of the $47,000 needed he did receive word from an unexpected funding source: The manager of Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from the mural offered to put up a donation box for the kids at his restaurant.

Catch a ride with Patricia -- as PAT buses are affectionately called around here -- down the East Busway and you'll be treated to (or offended by) a moving picture of graffiti displays that stretch almost as long as the busway itself. Just as the many artists who aerosoled these images didn't bow to permission, Holbrook didn't wait for permission to begin his painting. July 16, the day after he expected to have full funding, he received a letter from Port Authority project manager Michael Moorman saying that starting the project "may be unrealistic," and that until the design and location of the mural were approved, "the installation of the mural can not begin."

Beginning later "wasn't an option" if he was to finish by August, says Holbrook. He started on his scheduled July 19 date and requested of Port Authority a photo of one of their buses for reference purposes. They e-mailed it to Holbrook, who took that as consent to begin painting. But, no, "they never told me I could begin on the wall," he confesses. (Judi McNeil, Port Authority's media relations director, says now that Holbrook has their permission to use the wall and they support the project as long as it's not "offensive in any way.")

It probably wouldn't have mattered if Port Authority didn't send the photo reference -- Holbrook seems to be answering to a different authority. Making his case, he holds up supporting letters from the Hosanna House, Inc., (the primary fiduciary for Wilkinsburg Week and Seed), Mulberry Presbyterian Church pastor and Wilkinsburg Community and Government Unity Committee Chairman Rev. James Snyder, Wilkinsburg Intra-community Network Executive Director Sherman Nesbitt, Wilkinsburg borough council Vice President John Thompson and Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young.

"I'm not worried," says Holbrook. "We're not stopping, we're going."

The local businesses even came to his aid. The CVS drugstore provided him with a water source, as did the borough's fire station. The manager of the Popeye's restaurant across the street, who at first complained about kids leaving paint all over the bathrooms, was later sending them free chicken.

When in this zone, where Holbrook won't be denied, he calls himself "Holberdine." It's his ruthless, by-any-means-necessary alter ego -- one of many, actually.

As a child, Holbrook took classes at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and later graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. But in all things business he's completely raw -- no classes, no formal training. When he exposes his fangs as "Holberdine" -- whom he only brings out for bureaucrats and corporate bigwigs -- his inner hustler is revealed, with a guerilla marketing approach and fund-raising savvy that can only be learned in the streets.

His company, KH Designs, was built upon his murals, the caricatures he draws at festivals and parties, his clothing line and other paintings he does for businesses and individuals. All the promotion, branding, invoicing, contracting, transporting and presenting is done by Holbrook. He regularly hires friends, family members and students from the Art Institute as freelance artists on projects, but all administrative work is done by himself and Jayme Bailey, who's also the mother of his 4-year-old daughter, Kyla.

The voice you hear when you call Holbrook's business celly (he has two) is Bailey's. She instructs you to leave a message and "one of KH Design's representatives will get back to you." There are no reps. Holbrook will get back to you, or maybe Holberdine if you're the guy without the money.

His caricatures are both a way of learning faces (he's bad with names) and of getting his face known. He does at least two events a week. After he makes an observation or conclusion about a person, you'll often hear him say, "...I looked him in the eyes." He gets this from staring into so many eyes when seated for caricatures.

The clothing line is the least creative of his ventures. Most of the clothes -- T-shirts, polos and trucker hats -- bear nothing more than his logo, a neo-Karl Kani monogram. It gets his name out there.

If you factor in the portraits he does regularly, and the case of Sobe No Fear energy drinks in the back of his minivan, you realize sleep isn't a priority for him.

When Bailey first met Holbrook, she says, "He wasn't so uptight and always on schedule all the time. Now he's always on the run."

When asked what else besides art characterized Holbrook when he was younger, she squirms in her chair.

"Do we have to talk about that?" she asks.

Exiting the busway parking lot in Wilkinsburg, you immediately approach North Street, where Holbrook grew up. It's recognized by many as a dividing street between Wilkinsburg and Homewood. In many ways it also symbolizes the median Holbrook has had to straddle most of his life.

He came of age during the gang scourge of the '90s. His street was the only Crip street in the Blood-heavy Wilkinsburg, claimed by Crips from Homewood. Before that, it was home to earlier gang incarnations like HOODS and LAW, which he grew up with. With LAW he had to wear all black; a street over, headed west, the colors were red, while the streets to his east were covered by blue. Joining gangs, he says, was his decision, based not just on security but on the fact that they were among the few social networks available to young black men back then.

What set him apart from many guys in that culture, Holbrook says, is that he didn't grow up in poverty or fatherless; his parents were "good, supportive." His mother, Yvonne, who is black, was a math-specialist teacher and his father Bill, who was white, was a counselor and soccer coach, credited for bringing the first city soccer league here.

If it wasn't the colors he had to wear nudging him one way or another, it was the color of his skin. Being biracial, Holbrook remembers attending Central Catholic Junior High and Allderdice High School where black gangs regularly clashed with white gangs. He remembers some of the bloodiest clashes with a white gang called Greenfield Mafia.

He was very close to his father. "A free spirit," is what Kyle's mother calls her husband, now deceased. When Holbrook was a senior in high school, his father died in his arms. His mother says her son had a very difficult time coping with that loss, for he got much of his steely determination from his father.

"Dad was, ‘I want to do what I want to do and I don't want to be directed or mandated by anybody,'" says Holbrook's mother. And of herself, "Mom was more being in the system. So Kyle had both."

The bounce between different worlds is constant for him, nothing ever being totally black or white, rather gray -- or, as his theory on color suggests, orange. Besides frantically tiptoeing the line between art and commodity, he also flaps between the corporate/professional thing and the streets.

Showing up at Community Empowerment Association in Homewood to talk to kids about murals, his split personality is reflected in his dress. On his head is a sandstone tweed Kangol, and on his back a long black wool trenchcoat. Underneath the dress coat and sophisticated headwear, though, is an oversized Miami Dolphins football jersey, drunken blue jeans and Uptown Nikes painted the Dolphins' colors, green and orange. In his right hand is a brown leather briefcase that he carries everywhere.

"Totally different," says Bill Solomon, known as "Lock," of his longtime friend and ex-knucklehead turned full-time artist and businessman. The thing that brought them together back then: "Kidstuff," says Lock. "We used to think we were men doing that kidstuff -- gangbangin' -- and then expecting to be treated like men. But his attitude has changed now. He realizes being a man don't mean being a kid, too."

Originally from Larimer, near East Liberty, Lock first met Holbrook when he was known as "Julio" or "H-Dub." Lock was close to getting jumped by a Homewood gang when Holbrook came to his aid. The guys who were about to jump Lock "respected Kyle, and I don't know why.

"I ain't even get to really meet him that day to thank him," Lock recalls. "I was introduced to him the next day and we just kinda clicked from that moment and been best friends ever since."

Perhaps it was Holbrook's former affiliation with the LAW gang linking Wilkinsburg with Larimer (It's an acronym for Larimer "Ave" Wilkinsburg). He doesn't remember. It's a time of his life he says he's not proud of, and though he's not against speaking of it, you can tell he hasn't invested a lot of time in thinking about that past. Now, he's too occupied in getting kids off the street before gangs become an option. Lock has remained Holbrook's right-hand man, assisting in most of Holbrook's projects.

Not all the boys in the hood approve of Holbrook's transition, though.

"There's always at least one person who'll be out with us and you can tell he's not feeling Kyle's change, wantin' [Kyle] to be stuck and miserable like they are," says Lock. "But Kyle will recognize that and still talk to them positively. He ain't, like, if you come at him negative, he'll come at you negative. Now, you come at him negative, he comes at you positive."

Holbrook still goes by different names today, even if they're just the names he's produced in his own head. There's "Holberdine" and there's "Holberville" when he's in his obsessive creative zones. Then there's "Young Dude," his more flossy, flirtatious character. He's handling his business, but he's still a young black man in America. And with that sometimes comes the tendency to show off the spoils of victory.

He probably pulls in about as much as the average cat on the block just off his caricatures. But he wears no jewelry, no high-end designer clothes -- other than his own. He periodically drives a late '90s slickass 'Lac DeVille and has a tricked-out early, early-edition Monte Carlo -- his "toy" -- that you may never catch him in. More often, you'll see him in his old frill-less minivan -- the company car.

The rapper Common once said, "I hustle at a speed between need and greed," which summarizes Holbrook's own pace. He's never been dirt-poor, but today he has a daughter, a family and a community to take care of.

The first piece Holbrook ever sold went for $35. His mother bought it, though he didn't know that at the time. "I had to buy the picture, he's my baby," says his mother. "Besides, I didn't want anyone else to have it." He was in fourth grade.

It wouldn't be the first time she'd have to pay for his work. When Holbrook was a student at Clarion University, which didn't last long, his mother was called up to the school because he drew a mural, of sorts, on his dormitory's bathroom walls. He didn't have permission to do that one, either.

"They said, ‘It's beautiful but you'll have to pay to remove it,'" says his mother, laughing. "I was like, ‘Well, at least let me see it first.'"

But his mother probably won't have the $47,000 to kick-up for the piece her son is currently working on. One week after he began working on the Wilkinsburg busway wall the rain that had been threatening to fall finally begins dropping, almost as if God himself is trying to red-light the project. Holbrook still hasn't received any word from Weed and Seed that he'll get the rest of the funding, but Wilkinsburg council is working to get him an additional $7,000. Just $40,000 to go.

Leroy Hicks, Wilkinsburg's Weed and Seed coordinator, says "nothing's guaranteed" but he is "hopeful" they'll get the additional money. If they don't, Hicks says he'll work with the Hosanna House and the council to find other ways to attract funds to the project, "especially since it involves youth."

Says Hicks, "If we give youth something constructive to do and put money in their pocket while doing it, then we can keep them from the back streets and put them on the front streets, inspiring other youth to put down the drugs and guns and pick up a paintbrush."

Hundreds of people have already walked or driven by to see the group out there dressing the wall in loud-colored loops, swirls and zigzags. Among them are local filmmaker Chris Ivey, Paradise from the rap group X-Clan and borough councilor John Thompson, who says, "I see he has a strong penchant for orange, must be his favorite color."

One 12-year-old named Lashay has her own section of the wall where she's produced a "masterpiece" called "Torn Away from Fear." It's a collection of "splats" made from her paint-flinging.

"The white is stronger than the orange," she says, drawing the curiosity of Holbrook. From a few feet away her theory sounds mistaken: There's orange everywhere, easily overpowering the few white splats on the wall. A closer look, however, reveals what she means. There are white splats and orange splats. You can't tell the orange splats apart because they lay against an orange background, whereas the white splats standout against the colored backdrop.

"You see what that means?" Holbrook asks her. "That's you; that's the artist in you. You're different. You stand out and you should always be proud of that."

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