Columbia artist uses spray paint to inspire creativity within community

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 28, 2012
James Hopfenblatt, who was born in Bolivia, uses his international background and urban influences to shape his graffiti art.

COLUMBIA — In the neighborhood near Jefferson Junior High School, the sound of hip-hop artist Brother Ali booms from the stereo speakers of a parked car.

James Hopfenblatt shakes a can of electric blue spray paint and surveys the blank wall in front of him. Visible through a thin coating of white paint are old patterns of graffiti.

Artist's Work

To view more of James Hopfenblatt's work, you can visit his website here.

After consulting a sketch on an 8- by 11-inch sheet of paper, Hopfenblatt takes the can, applies careful pressure to the nozzle and sweeps his arm across the wall, continuing to cover his canvas.

Hopfenblatt, 26, is spending the day doing what he loves most — creating art for the community. Born in Bolivia, the artist uses his international background and modern urban influences to create graffiti murals on storage sheds along Rogers Street.

"I was always interested more in imaginative stuff," he said. "I wanted to create new things and ideas, like places and creatures and characters."

He trained as an architect and was drawn to graffiti and illustration during his childhood. He remembers walking through the streets in his hometown where buildings were covered with drawings and political slogans.

Ever since, he has tried to learn as much as possible about the urban art form.

"I learned a lot by looking at magazines and videos about it," he said. "From there, I got exposure to different artists, and I picked up some of the technical aspects."

His contributions to the urban landscape include two graffiti murals on a storage shed on Rogers Street.

One displays a larger-than-life character with grey skin, crooked teeth and a menacing glare. Its black eye was a last-minute addition in the creative process. 

On the opposite side of the same shed is another character that sprang from Hopfenblatt's imagination. The stick-like figure wears a cowboy hat, chews on a piece of straw and carries a gun slung over his shoulder.

"Subject-wise, I've always loved creating characters," he said. "I love starting from something abstract and creating a character that lives in its own world and has its own reality."

The murals on Rogers Street developed from a 2006 project after the property owner allowed artists to contribute to the neighborhood art scene by painting the wood sheds he owns in the area.

After the proposal was initially met with little interest, Hopfenblatt jumped on board with the idea to use urban-influenced graffiti to bring a different style of art to the community. Since then, several other artists have also taken part in the ongoing project.

"It's interesting that graffiti and aerosol art is being recognized as a higher form of art than it once was," Hopfenblatt said. "I think it's great that people are getting into it."

Despite the stigma surrounding it, graffiti isn't just vandalism. Since 2002, a network of graffiti artists called International Meeting of Styles has put on events to help foster the graffiti movement in cities around the world. Artists meet to learn, practice and collaborate on approved projects on city walls.

Originally established in Wiesbaden, Germany, the organization has expanded to hold events in 16 countries in Europe, Russia, North American and South America.

Though Hopfenblatt is experienced with oil paints and digital animation, he loves spray paint for large-scale projects like the wall murals.

"You're using your entire body to paint," he said. "That's why graffiti has a lot of movement and stands out. It is very dynamic."

From design to finished product, a mural can take Hopfenblatt several weeks to complete. During the day, he works as a draftsman for Central Missouri Countertops and carves out time for his urban projects in the afternoons and on weekends.

Drawing and sketching have always come naturally to him. Hopfenblatt said he came from an artistically expressive family.

Born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, he was exposed to a world of cultures. His mother, who was born in Fulton, moved to Bolivia for a university teaching job. There, she met Hopfenblatt's father, originally from Chile with German ancestry.

"It's always been a family that's been very encouraging of art," he said. "We've all been naturally inclined to and very perceptive to it."

The family moved to Columbia in 2000, just before he turned 14.

In high school, his artistic potential was noticed by Hickman High School English teacher Brock Boland, a sponsor of the school's music club, Academy of Rock. Boland saw an opportunity to use Hopfenblatt's talents to create a poster for visiting musical group Drive-By Truckers.

"He was really involved in his art classes," Boland said. "So when Drive-By Truckers agreed to come, knowing he was into graphic design and media, I asked him to create a concert poster."

That opportunity began to develop Hopfenblatt's skills in graphic design. It was the first time he had displayed his artwork in a public setting.

"I was really impressed," Boland said. "He conceptualized, created and executed it by himself, and it was awesome."

Hopfenblatt continued his passion for art by earning a degree in architectural design in December 2010 at MU. Throughout college and afterward, he said he has seen visual styles around him, as well as his own, evolve.

"Styles are merging and people are becoming more creative," he said. "They're using different mediums too, from yarn to welding to doing things with concrete."

While graffiti styles are influenced by artists in Los Angeles, New York City, parts of Europe and Australia, Hopfenblatt finds a lot of his inspiration stems from his childhood in Bolivia. 

"The reason I like to paint murals is definitely because, in Latin America, there are a lot of political and revolutionary murals," Hopfenblatt said. "I love seeing forms of expression everywhere."

In 2007, he met David Spear, who was working on a pilot project for the Traffic Box Art Program sponsored by the city of Columbia.

Spear, who was on his third consecutive night of working into the early hours in downtown Columbia, welcomed Hopfenblatt's company. 

"He seemed rational and interested and intelligent, which was really nice when he was standing out there with me," Spear said.

Since then, the two artists have supported each other and collaborated on artwork. Spear, who is working on a 20- by 40-foot mural outside of his studio, Alleyway Arts, asked Hopfenblatt to add his own creativity to the piece.

"James is a really good-hearted artist that's willing to help and collaborate and work with the community," Spear said.

From graffiti to collaborative works and a newfound interest in digital animation and film, Hopfenblatt plans on keeping his passion for art with new projects and exploration.

"I'm all over the place," Hopfenblatt said. "I love the whole thing."

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