Junior Whitney Kerr stands on a metal platform, contemplating the canvas in front of him in the cool fall breeze. He reaches for a yellow can of aerosol spray paint and begins forming an outline. His right hand steadily traces the form of a design that can only be done from memory; he accidentally left the sketch he had been agonizing over for weeks at home.
But he’s fine — so what if 700 people will be watching him? He’s used to a crowd. At least on a smaller scale, he thinks. His friends watch him all the time.
His girlfriend, Ann, snaps pictures of him from different angles, smiling even when she knows he isn’t looking at her. It feels good, having her there. She supports him. On the canvas, the word “paint” is legible but just barely. The letters crash into each other, pieces of the “A” hidden behind the “P,” the tip of the “N” curving over the “T.” He stops and surveys the yellow outline, but only for a moment. He doesn’t want to waste time.
He walks to the edge of the platform and lightly snatches up a dark teal colored can from the group clustered around his black North Face backpack. From the bottom up, he works, blending the dark teal with a lighter shade of the same color, then adding a light green strip on top of that one. At the very tip of the “P” he starts in with white paint, completing a kind of oceanic gradient within the yellow outline.
As the evening light fades and the design on the canvas comes to life, people begin to gather around his display. “PAINT the TOWN, Whitney Kerr III, Graffiti Artist” is placed in front of the stage on piece of paper inside a light-up frame. Couples, waiters and family friends stoop low to pick up a business card from the pile sitting next to the sign.
“Oh yeah, it’s great, I love it!”
“He should sell that — it’d make a lot of money.”
“I’m so impressed!”
Kerr smiles, spraying over the yellow outline, this time in bright orange. All that matters is the work ahead of him.
As a sixth grader at Corinth Elementary, Kerr tried getting into graffiti. His friends were interested as well, and together they attempted to emulate the designs they’d seen around town and online. The art was fun for a while, but too difficult to seriously pursue. Kerr found that graffiti didn’t have much meaning to him other than the fact that it looked cool.
His outlook changed as he grew older. He began doodling the intricate block letters in notebooks and in the margins of his worksheets at school. Though he had become more interested in graffiti, his main focus during his freshman year at East was face-drawing; he would do pencil and charcoal sketches of peoples’ faces in great detail.
High school brought more new things than just art techniques. After being deemed a troublemaker by his parents, Kerr was sent to spend his sophomore year away at Christchurch boarding school in Virginia.
His parents told him about the decision four weeks before school started. Kerr was torn about leaving home. He was upset to have to part from his friends and his family, but he agreed with his parents that a fresh start would be good for him.
He began outlining the word “Change” constantly, the intertwining letters covering the pages of his sketchbook.
“I just noticed that change is a huge aspect of everybody’s life. Sometimes you gotta change some things to get to where you need to be.” Kerr said.
Graffiti had fatefully found the meaning it had been missing before.
“Hurry up, Mountain Man!” Kerr called over his shoulder.
Nick, a native of Gordonsville, Virginia, hustled up to the join the other four boys, a wad of chewing tobacco making his bottom lip fat.
“I’m here, I’m here, dammit,” he said, shoving his hands into his jeans’ pockets.
“Hold these,” Kerr said, handing him the backpack that contained his cans of paint.
A sophomore at Christchurch, Kerr felt more at home than he ever thought he would. The school work was as bad as he had expected. The people he had met were not.
“How far along is the warehouse?” Enrique asked, his Spanish accent slurring the words in places.
“It’s a four mile walk, so we probably have half that left to go,” Kerr said.
Enrique and Nick, as well as the other boys Scott and Tajee, were students Kerr had become close with during his time at Christchurch. Scott was a character, a huge blond boy with a buzz cut and a habit of consistent cursing. Tajee, a lean African-American soccer player, stayed in the same dorm as Kerr and “showed him the ropes” upon his arrival.
The five boys walked impatiently down Rosegill Road in the crisp March air, scouring the thick trees for sight of the abandoned go-kart warehouse. Kerr was looking forward to trying out his skill with a can.
Kerr’s friends were fully supportive, especially Enrique, whose friends back in Madrid also made graffiti. The four boys stayed with Kerr at the warehouse while he spray painted his first serious piece.
Though simple in appearance, the design had a strong personal meaning to Kerr. The tall, slanting letters spelling out “Barrow” were a tribute to a close friend of Kerr’s and fellow East student, Bryan Barrow, who had been killed in a car accident earlier that month. The word was a golden yellow color against a blue background, with gold stars adorning the edges and a red outline. The finished product wasn’t perfect, and Kerr took that as a challenge.
“I learned a lot from that first piece,” Kerr said. “I made mistakes and I either fixed them or I couldn’t, but I knew they were mistakes. And I learned from that.”
He went back to the warehouse three more times during his remaining days at boarding school, each time putting up a new design.
The graffiti in the warehouse was eventually found by a school officer, but Kerr didn’t care — it was worth the five days of mulching the school grounds. The incident only made him want to further pursue his graffiti. The time Kerr had spent at Christchurch had changed his perspective. He was more focused on his art than he had ever been before.
At the end of his sophomore year, Kerr’s parents decided that the school had done its job for him and that he would be able to come back to East for his junior and senior years. Kerr was excited to go home, but as he thought more about it he became depressed that he would be leaving his friends at Christchurch behind.
“Your values change when you’re put in that setting,” Kerr said. “You value each other more than anything.”
Kerr spends most of his time in his garage.
The wall closest to the backyard is covered in Kerr’s original designs, layers and layers of paint caked over one another. The smooth corners and swirling colors of past designs peek out from the edges of Kerr’s latest piece.
“I learn from the wall,” Kerr said. “It’s a whole different story when you’re spray painting it, it’s a lot harder to get the detail that you want.”
The garage is a safe place for Kerr to practice. He can test his skills in peace, spending as much time as he wants getting the “C” just right, or perfecting the trim of the “E”. He can stay in the garage for hours, completing a design, correcting his mistakes and adding final touches; he then paints over the entire thing so that he can start fresh. He recognizes his own talent, but he pushes himself to go further.
Since his arrival home in May, he’s been striving to become serious with his art.
“I decided that when I got back I would start getting it together and doing this art thing,” Kerr said.
He began to take his work public, working on pieces for friends’ basements and doing personal “shout out” pieces. The first basement design that he did was for Cole Wilkerson, a junior at Pembroke Hill School. In June, Wilkerson asked Kerr to spray an original design on a blank wall in his basement. Kerr came up with a sketch involving “Kansas City”, a tribute to his hometown and a relevant design for Wilkerson’s Kansas City home.
Kerr’s designs had come a long way in just a few months. The design on Wilkerson’s wall was massive, spanning almost its entire length. The two words meshed together, both of them using the same color scheme of light to dark blue from top to bottom. Slices of bright orange accented certain letters and white stars jutted out from the far edges.
Kerr’s hours in the garage had begun to pay off.
His most serious line of work came towards the end of summer. Kerr’s parents told him in August that he was hired for Paint the Town, an event at the Plaza Art Fair sponsored by St. Luke’s Hospital. The event would take place on Sept. 26 outside the Intercontinental hotel on the plaza, giving Kerr time to arrange his piece.
When he found out, Kerr was ecstatic. He was shocked. He was excited and anxious and “a million different feelings at once.” This was Kerr’s big break.
“Pressure’s on,” Kerr said with a smile.
Being back in Kansas City had brought on an opportunity that he never would’ve thought possible.
It’s dark out now, and the crowd has reached its quota. Guests move in masses, watching the different artists that are situated around the glowing pool outside the Intercontinental. People linger by the ice sculptor, exclaiming at the very outlandishness of an ice sculptor, while admiring the frozen palm tree he has created. More people stand in line for the caricature artist, waiting to have their features distorted on paper. Even more people watch the Spanish dancers, salsa-ing on the platform raised above the kid pool.
The most people are standing on the concrete steps in front of the graffiti artist.
The graffiti artists’ arm moves easily across the canvas, which is no longer half-finished; it’s filled with a complete version of the sketch in his mind. He stops to shake out the soreness in his arm and smile at his mother, who is crooning over his talents to her friends. “Can you believe my son? It’s exciting, it really is!”
Ann watches him from her seat on the steps, occasionally getting up and strategically snapping a photo. He begins adding the finishing touches — “Paint the Town” to the right of the design in purple paint and his initials below that in the right corner. He gracefully sprays “Big thanks to: Abby!” in a blank space on the canvas, as well as “Thanks Christina!”, a shout out to the women who set him up with the gig. He’s so grateful to have had the opportunity to showcase his work.
He has big plans for his future, all revolving around his graffiti. He wants to take more art classes and learn everything that he can; he says he still has a long way to go. He wants to become sponsored by a paint company, so he can do what he loves for free. He wants to attend a graphic arts school for college.
Most of all, the graffiti artist wants his paint to be more than paint.
“I don’t want to just be inspired, I want to inspire other people.”