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Kansas City Star: How Scribe - graffiti artist, hospital artist - has made his mark on KC

Scribe with ambulance

Riding around Kansas City with the artist Scribe is more than a little surreal.

That mural of the rhinoceros piloting a catfish-shaped submarine on 39th Street? He painted that.

The animals engaged in a Wu-Tang-style kung fu battle in a Broadway Boulevard alley on the outskirts of Westport? That’s his, too.

And the giant gophers being pelted with bananas off Southwest Boulevard. Yep. Scribe.

But then, as he’s driving and explaining his life in art, a Children's Mercy transport ambulance whizzes past. On the side panels, an elephant he drew.

“It’s bizarre to see those go by,” he said. “They’re like giant Hot Wheels. It’s strange to see it in motion.”

Scribe once was just a Midwestern preacher’s kid named Donald Ross. For going on two decades now, his graffiti, murals and artworks have been the tattoos on the skin of Kansas City.

His current daytime gig is staff artist for Children’s Mercy, a job for which he is loved and revered. When people in the hospital meet him for the first time, they smile like his goony cartoon bunnies.

Yet there was a time when he wasn’t so esteemed. As a student, he became persona non grata at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City law enforcement once considered him something of a public nuisance, going so far as to post flyers asking for information about him and his fellow graffiti artists, some of whom were accused of painting public property.

He said he has no shame about those moments and he takes full responsibility for the parts he played, though he is a little reluctant to talk about them.

“I would hate for any of my past to overshadow anything at Children’s Mercy,” he said. “It’s hard enough that they have me, a tattooed weirdo, walking around there. It has to protect itself. And there are parts of me that are challenging.”

Susan Cain, the hospital’s director of facilities planning and design (and Scribe’s boss), laughed at his “weirdo” quote.

“He’s a big guy with a great heart, and everything he does has a purpose,” she said. “I can go to work and I can go home and separate the two pretty easily. What he does is who he is. Sometimes he has to defend what he does, but not much. He has gotten so good at figuring what it is our patients need to see that once (the hospital) decides on the theme, he develops it and everyone loves it.”


So it turns out that Scribe’s most subversive act as an artist is going mainstream.

Touring Children’s Mercy Hospital with the 41-year-old Scribe, two things become abundantly clear.

First: The man has done an incredible amount of work throughout the facility. From the nautical-themed tiled flooring to the multi-level murals of anthropomorphic pinatas, he’s created an environment that’s whimsical for kids and intriguing for adults. Standing in this hospital surrounded by his artwork is like being in the middle of the inevitable bittersweet moment in every Pixar movie.

Secondly: Seemingly everybody in the joint knows him. Patients, doctors, janitors, donors — they all brighten when they see this big bearded guy with tattoos of Bugs Bunny and Finn and Jake.

“One of the positive side effects of what I do is it’s public,” he said. “I’m a fierce fighter for the idea that everyone is on equal footing. It’s pretty obvious that someone who does heart surgery on kids is an incredible person, but the people who are doing janitorial work and working behind the scenes, they make the world go round.”

And when someone at the hospital meets Scribe for the first time — a staffer tells a visitor, “Hey, this is the guy who did all the murals in here” — he takes a moment to talk with each and every one of them.

Nurse Emily Falkenrheh, who transports children in one of the ambulances adorned with Scribe’s animal characters, met him for the first time when we toured the hospital a few weeks ago, and she seemed almost starstruck. She said she’s witnessed first-hand the power his work has on the kids who come to Children’s Mercy via the Scribe-designed ambulances.

“We see it all the time,” she said. “We’ll bring out a hesitant patient who’s afraid, and they’ll see the ambulance and it brings them peace. Oftentimes you’ll see them physically relax. I’ve had kids not shut up about it the whole ride to the hospital.”

Scribe’s mission at Children’s Mercy is to use his artwork to change the hospital experience into something unexpected.

“Some of these kids, unfortunately, have a professional career of coming here,” he said. “I like to imagine a kid sitting there and, whether the walls have a fish theme or something a little funkier, they start really getting inside their head in a different way rather than focusing on the procedure they’re about to go through.”

Whitnee Ice is a college student who currently volunteers at the hospital, but she started out as a patient when she was in eighth grade.

She has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that, in very general terms, loosens connective tissues throughout the body.

“It causes health problems head to toe, so I’ve been to all kinds of clinics,” she said. “If you name it, I’ve probably been in it.”

Over the course of her many visits to the hospital, she’s seen the previously bland and boring hallways transformed by Scribe’s delightfully colorful goofiness.

“The ER downstairs is one of my favorite rooms, because he has a lot of stuff down there,” she said. “The nurses would put PICC (I.V.) lines in and have my stomach pumped, and they tried to make me comfortable and distract me by talking about the stuff on the walls. It was like an ‘I Spy’ game. It helped a lot.”


Read the full story via The Kansas City Star.