It’s a gorgeous spring afternoon in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, and a group of photography students from a Fresno middle school are gathered at the corner of Helena and Mason streets. They’re taking pictures of the large murals on plywood that surround the vacant building on the corner. A young couple from Germany stops to ask questions about the artwork. Moments later, a minivan with Iowa plates slows to a crawl, the family inside leaning out of the windows to admire the public art. “Tourists take pictures all the time,” Laura Inks explains. “It’s become an unofficial destination for Santa Barbara visitors.”
Inks is the director of education at the Granada and an arts educator who describes her work over the past 20 years as “trying to convert some really talented kids from rap sheets to résumés.” Seated at a painted wooden table outside Fishnet—an artists’ collaborative and gallery she founded last July—Inks explained the origins of the Funk Zone mural project. “We signed the lease for the gallery, opened the front door, and looked out at broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, and a trash-strewn parking lot,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty Santa Barbara, and I knew we had to make this street more visitor-friendly.”
The vacant building Inks described was once slated for the La Entrada redevelopment project of lower State Street, but had lain empty since developer Bill Levy went bankrupt in 2006. It wasn’t until Inks met Ray Wicken, property manager for Mountain Funding, who currently holds the property, that she formalized a plan to transform the site with art.
“I ran into him in a bar where I was meeting a friend for a drink after work,” Inks explained. “It took me a while to convince him of the idea, but he came through. It’s a pretty loose arrangement: a promise, a handshake, and an email that I print out and give to the kids when they are doing their artwork in case they get hassled by the police.” The management company is happy with the murals. “I’m very appreciative of what Laura has done,” Wicken said. “It has significantly lessened the graffiti and tagging on the buildings. The murals have really improved the area.” Inks, too, has been pleased with the decrease in tagging since the murals went up. “I like to think this says these kids understand the significance of art,” she said, “no matter where it happens.”
As for funding, the project is on its own. Inks received some anonymous donations when she began last August. “I put it on the artists to buy their own paint and materials,” she explained. “Right now there is no funding. I have a homeless high school kid who is an amazing artist, but he doesn’t have the money for paint and plywood.” They aren’t all kids; the 12 artists involved range in age from 17 to 66. There are no restrictions on the content of their work, though Inks gives them some thematic guidelines. Many have gone on to show their work in other spaces: David Cooley, Jimmy Bell, and Uriel Leon have had shows in Los Angeles galleries, while David Flores is part of an exhibit going up in China. Another artist involved in the project, Lewis Thurman, recently sold his mural depicting Jacques Cousteau to the subject’s son, Jean-Michel. Thurman plans to use the proceeds from the sale of the mural to buy paint and supplies for Jonathan Hernandez, the high school student Inks had hoped could be part of the project. Inks beamed as she described Thurman’s generosity. “It’s so cool that Lewis is paving the way for another artist to create work,” she said. “It’s supposed to be that way.”
Inks’s crew of artists covers a wider socio-economic range than what you’ll find inside most galleries and museums, and she’s proud of what they’re accomplishing. “One guy is a part-time bartender,” she noted. “I‘ve got a full-time UCSB student, four kids with graffiti arrest records, and one DUI. Then there’s an older local van dweller who once had a legitimate career in advertising. He was one of my first artists to show up. He needed a place to showcase a larger work and get his name into the mainstream. He did it.”
On the corner of Mason and Helena, a few Japanese tourists with cameras around their necks speak in soft tones and pose for souvenir photos in front of a mural depicting a slouching surfer. They’ve only strayed a block or two from the dolphin fountain, but they’re discovering a very different view of Santa Barbara. Inks smiles as she watches them. Her project has transformed this corner of the Funk Zone, and she’s done it all on the side of her full-time job and busy family life. “I do all this in my spare time,” she admitted. “This is how I can make a difference in this world. I get huge satisfaction from providing an opportunity for growth and drawing connections between people and art.”