- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - The night before Zach Medler set out to spray-paint Lafayette, a one-story warehouse called Foam City bristled with neon hair and spiked jackets. A street punk band from Boston cranked the volume to 11, shouting throaty expletives while shirtless, tattooed mosh-pitters thrashed on the dance floor.

The place smelled of sweat and cigarettes. Old computers and couches were clustered near the walls, and graffiti - colorful, hasty scribbles, intricate, miniature drawings - was everywhere.

Nestled in the back corner of this alternative studio space/venue is a repurposed garage where Medler, a 35-year-old muralist, keeps his stencils, paste-ups, rollers, rags, plastic buckets, found wood and many, many cans of spray paint. The walls are blanketed with the blacks, reds, yellows and blues of stylized aerosol graffiti. His studio is a mess of color, creation and destruction.

Medler, who is married and wears a baseball cap and a solid tee, has more in common with the street punk than meets the eye. He’s a street artist, and he shares with the punk rocker a need to defy the city image as old, white, conservative, Christian and quintessentially Midwestern. Medler wants to “challenge the older guard” and to “bring a younger aesthetic into town.”

On a recent Thursday morning, the punk rockers were long gone, and Medler carried his spray painting tools in a plastic bin.

He doesn’t like the way things look around town. He walked up to a boarded window near the corner of Ferry and Fifth streets and frowned at the dreariness of sun-faded wood and peeling paint.

“Lafayette just looks like a typical Midwest city. It’s brick and tan. To me, tan isn’t a color. It’s an attitude,” he told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/WfiO0Q ).

He carried the bin and a 10-foot ladder to the alleyway between Bernadette’s Barbershop and Chase Bank, where a team of landscapers had parked a pickup truck and trailer to work on the gardens facing Main Street. He got to work. He was done by noontime. Passers-by hardly noticed the clack-clack-clack of shaking paint cans, the clang of metal on concrete, and the hiss and fumes of paint jetting onto the eggshell-colored wall.

Medler left his signature - a life-size boy looking down at a cellphone. But above this cartoonish yet satirical drawing is something new - a proclamation. For Medler and for the town’s street punkers - and bikers, skateboarders, taggers, tattoo artists and house show musicians - it signifies something big. Really big. It says, “small spaces: Lafayette.”

It’s a project, as city planner and project coordinator Margy Deverall put it, to “funkify Lafayette” with publicly sanctioned graffiti. Medler will hire graffiti artists from Detroit, Indianapolis and other urban centers to tag boarded-up windows, alleys, doors and garage doors around town. Property owners will need to approve each installation, and they reserve the right to have the pieces taken down.

It’s no surprise the project already has stirred up controversy, and, as Medler and Deverall would learn later at a meeting with the Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission, it will likely never gain full public support.

On May 22, the Lafayette Redevelopment Commission approved a $20,000 contract that allowed Medler to bring “a youthful aesthetic built on contemporary street art, graffiti writing, stencils, paste-ups, installation, sculpture and similar media,” making “small spaces: Lafayette” the largest public arts grant of its kind, nearly three times the average grant since 1976.

It will span the entire summer and feature up to 15 artists and 60 spaces. A similar, smaller-scale project in West Lafayette, “tiny places,” which involves another artist, is also in the works.

Medler has worked to liven up the city’s streets before; he’s installed public art all over Greater Lafayette. He almost reflexively looks at the side of a building and sees a canvas.

But this is less a public art project than an effort to bridge the gap between what Lafayette is and what Medler envisions the city could become.

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