Artist Jordan Brooks creates community through murals, art, graffiti – cialisdfr
Artist Jordan Brooks creates community through murals, art, graffiti
Artist Jordan Brooks creates community through murals, art, graffiti

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Editor’s Note: Jordan Brooks first told this story on the Community Stage of the Des Moines Storytellers Project. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events where community members work with Register journalists to tell true first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.

There is a difference between being in community and being in community with others.

Being in community is simply a matter of proximity. Being in community is a reciprocal exchange and an active choice be.

Growing up, I always felt like a child between spaces.

Born in the Philippines, raised in Pennsylvania.

Grow up Baptist, attend Catholic school.

After-school care in a neighborhood. Lived and played in another.

No place felt like my own, but I had to figure out how to navigate between them all.

I was constantly struggling with the question, “Where should I be?” I wanted somewhere to feel seen, heard, recognized, understood.

My mom’s family is big and lives in a small town called Erie where I grew up. Erie, PA is like Davenport. Even in such a small town, it’s easy to feel lost in such a big family. Even though you have a large community around you, it can be difficult to find your place.

My father’s side of the family is small, but they live in New York. If I felt lost among my family in Erie, imagine the feeling you get when you walk down any busy street in New York. The sheer size of New York definitely made it easy to feel lost in it.

Oddly enough, New York is where I started to find my answer to where I needed to be.

My family visited New York to see my father’s family from time to time. My first real memory of being there was when I was about 6 or 7. I remember catching the subway train to get to my aunt’s house. I was fascinated by these underground rockets that could take you anywhere under the giant skyscrapers, which for a kid from Erie was definitely a landmark. Just the rush of running to catch your train and get through the door before it closed was exciting to me.

On the way to my aunt, I remember that we actually came from underground. As we hurtle down the tracks and then rise above the surface, there’s a moment where you feel the train slow down and a sudden burst of light. As I make sense of the transition from darkness to light, I look outside and see huge graffiti murals on the sides of buildings.

Bright colors and sometimes difficult to decipher letters caught my attention.

I asked my dad about all of this and he told me stories about how graffiti came about when he was in high school. He told me that a big reason people do graffiti is so they can have a way to say “I’m here.”

After noticing the art on the train ride, I noticed the graffiti everywhere. The seat marker writings, the labels on the side of other trains. Something about that moment made me really see art for the first time and opened my curiosity. I was blown away by the artwork.

I finally got my answer.

I have to be everywhere I can leave my mark.

Growing up, I never drew on walls or trains because my dad didn’t like it. I believe it was a “do as I say, not as I do” type of situation.

Still, I became more curious. What do I have to say and to whom? How will people know I’m here?

Graffiti sparked my interest in art. I started writing and drawing different characters like Dragon Ball Z and gargoyles.

I started drawing everywhere and always invited others to look at what I was doing. It felt good to have people recognize my creative talent.

Whether it’s my peers coming over to my desk or kicking it with me at lunch and looking at the various drawings I’ve made. Or going to my local community arts center and having the teachers encourage me to put pieces in galleries and exhibitions.

My mother would actually save my works and hang them in the house. She is my first collector. There are some pieces in my parent’s house that my mom won’t even let me take.

In college I studied art and psychology to become a better designer. When I was in college, I worked at a court-appointed youth center with kids who might have done some things like spray graffiti on the side of someone’s business.

I couldn’t be right? Thanks dad!

When I sat and drew with the children, I noticed that they opened up more to me. The characters and figures they drew were often representative of feelings they felt or of people in their lives.

As we exchanged our art, we were able to connect more deeply with each other. They would even explain why they did the things they did or how they were influenced. I noticed that they were just trying to find their place, just like I was as a child.

The psychology major in me became captivated by the questions of who I am and how I can use art to reveal that.

I graduated and worked at a University in Georgia where I was responsible for creating resident programs. I wanted to use art to inspire others and build connections with people.

So somehow I convinced the school to build mobile graffiti walls that I could take to different locations and ask people to draw and answer questions like “Who are you?” “Are you present?” “Where are you from?” “Who do you aspire to be?”

Even after I left that job and moved to Iowa, I continued to use art to understand myself and others, to be in community.

During COVID, it was hard to feel like a community with anything other than my couch and fridge. I no longer had the creative community around me that I had before.

So I created my own virtual Draw From Life group where we would get together on Zoom and create and just connect with each other.

I loved that because people I hadn’t seen in a while and even people I’d never met would wake up on a Saturday and draw with me for an hour or two, just to be creative and be in community with each other. I was creating a virtual space for people to be and be themselves.

After COVID settled down, those Zoom calls turned into a weekly text message to the community, and those strangers became friends.

Like Dan.

Dan and I only connected via Zoom, but one of the first times we met in person, he came to help me paint a mural here in Des Moines.

My first large public mural is on the corner of 23rd Street and University Avenue connecting Lefty’s Music and Platinum Kutz, connecting two communities.

I called my dad and said, “I finally did it. I was painting on the side of the wall. Don’t worry though – I was paid to do it.”

Dan and so many other friends and people I just met outside helped me paint this mural. Every time I walk past it, I am reminded that I am here, that I am a creator, and through art we are in community.

Community is something that has to be created. Although it can exist in any space, you must cultivate a place for it be.

The events of my creative journey led my wife and I to just recently get a studio at Mainframe Studios here in Des Moines. We are so excited to continue asking and helping other people answer questions like “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “What does it mean to be in community through art and movement?”

I am so grateful because now the child in me that was trying to make sense of life between spaces is creating a place for its own community.

ABOUT THE NARRATOR: Jordan Brooks is the creator, educator and owner of KNWSLF (pronounced Know Self). KNWSLF stands for KNowledge, Wisdom, Self Love and Fellowship. Jordan is a PhD student and his art and research explores how Black parents can curate Black art in their homes to support their children’s racial/ethnic identity development.

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