Story By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography By Madison Ham
The hogan symbol from the Wichita flag is among the many tattoos that Johnny Freedom has on his arms. But his pride in Wichita is more than skin deep and it’s come a long way from the days when he thought Do-Dah was anything but cool.
In the past three years, Freedom has become well-known in the local art scene for painting murals for local businesses that either feature or incorporate the Wichita flag.
The now-iconic Wichita flag was created 80 years ago by local artist Cecil McAlister, who won $40 for his design in a contest sponsored by the American Legion. In recent years, fueled by a growing support-local movement and civic-pride campaigns by the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Wichita flag is being replicated on T-Shirts, mugs, socks, pins – you name it – and in tattoos like Freedom’s and in bold-statement murals.
“It’s not because of me that Wichita people are wanting the flag on their building,” said Freedom, taking a rain-delay break from creating his latest and largest flag mural on the Pumphouse in Old Town. “What we’re pushing for is pride in Wichita. Buy local. Shop local. We want people to stay in Wichita and keep their talents here.”
The Wichita native admits he couldn’t wait to leave his hometown when he graduated from Wichita Northwest High School in 1991.
“As an 18-year-old kid, I didn’t think there was any cool stuff here,” said the former U.S. Marine veteran. Not only did absence make his heart grow fonder, but on return visits with his wife, Aimee, the couple took note of Wichita’s growth – in homes, local businesses, community events and civic pride. They moved back to Wichita in 2009 with their three children. For Freedom, painting the flag is not only a way to show respect and love for his community, but it’s a creative, therapeutic respite from his full-time job with the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County,
Two other artists – Josh Tripoli and Rebekah Lewis whose work combined form Lupoli Collective – are another set of local artists who are helping spread the pride of Wichita through murals. They’ve also worked on other artwork promoting uniquely Wichita things, including this year’s winning River Festival artwork and Visit Wichita’s Wicked Wichita Brew Tour artwork.
Lupoli’s and Freedom’s murals are not only creating standout features for local businesses, but are becoming popular backdrops for photos by visitors and residents alike, proliferating photo-sharing social media sites.
“We like the idea of providing public art for the community to rally around and be a part of,” said Tripoli, who is an apprentice of well-known Wichita artist and muralist Steve Murillo. “It’s like forming a collective identity.”
When Tripoli talks about the community becoming a part of the art, he’s referring to the fact that on some of Lupoli’s public art projects, the pair have invited community members to help paint the designs, including a Wichita-motif mural at College Hill Deli that was created as part of Avenue Art Days last year.
“I never thought I’d be doing murals,” said Lewis, who earned a visual communications degree with an emphasis on graphic design from the University of Kansas, “so to see the Wichita mural come together last year was wild.”
Avenue Art Days – an initiative that was started in 2015 by Janelle King, owner of The Workroom, on behalf of the Douglas Design District (DDD) – has played a major role in the proliferation of murals. The idea King and other organizers had was to beautify, invigorate and draw people to the Douglas Design District – which stretches about 2.5 miles along Douglas from Washington to Oliver, extending a block north and south on either side of Douglas – by painting light poles and creating murals on the buildings of local businesses.
“What began with significant difficulty to get businesses’ buy-in, seen merely as permission for ‘graffiti,’ has become an accepted, sought-after and greatly valued form of public art,” said King, in an email interview.
Tripoli and Freedom both participated in that first Avenue Art Days, with Tripoli’s mural at 1238 E. Douglas incorporating bits of Wichita history and the flag, and Freedom’s mural at the corner of Wabash and Douglas being simply of the flag. The next round of Avenue Art Days is set for Sept. 23 and 24, when approximately 20 new murals will be created.
Now, “privately commissioned murals are popping up nearly weekly and not just within the DDD any longer,” King said. “Through the leadership of the DDD and the deep talents within our local artist community, street art is rapidly on the rise and becoming a significant factor in shifting the perceptions of the way Wichitans and others view our city.”
Freedom agreed. “It’s been a rallying point and a source of growing pride that is helping make local shops successful.”
Show your pride
Here’s where you can find three popular murals to serve as a backdrop for pictures to reflect your civic pride and support:
• Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria, 1706 E. Douglas, by Freedom. Features the Wichita skyline, the Keeper of the Plains and the Wichita flag-flying
• College Hill Deli, 3407 E. Douglas, by Lupoli and community artists. Features several Kansas and Wichita images, from a buffalo to a sunflower to monikers ICT and 316.
• Reuben Sanders Gallery, 3215 E. Douglas, by Lupoli. Finished just last month, the mural is a take on the iconic “Greetings From” postcards available from several cities. The images within the letters showcase artworks from both international and local artists that can be found in Wichita.
There’s also still time to enter the #WichitaFlagSummerTravelContest, managed by the flag-flying advocates at the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, The contest, in its second year, is showcasing travel photos featuring the Wichita flag in some fashion from folks in all 50 states and around the world. Here’s how it works: Follow @WichitaFlag on Instagram and post your travel pictures with the flag and use the hashtag #WichitaFlagSummerTravelContest. The deadline is Aug. 31. Find more contest information at ilovewichita.org/wichita-flag/summer-travel-contest.