CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Street artist Shane Pierce never met the little third grader - and it’s likely he never will.
But all it took was for Pierce to hear the story of a boy who needed to cross a busy Kannapolis thoroughfare on the mornings when he missed the school bus to launch what’s become the talk of the town this summer: a tunnel takeover.
Pierce, 40, is one of the Charlotte region’s best-known street artists, with murals in 18 schools and dozens of other community buildings across the area.
He paints in his spare time — on weekdays he runs an air duct cleaning business he owns — and one weekend, he happened upon a decrepit tunnel on Cannon Boulevard in Kannapolis.
It was filthy and dingy, filled with bags of trash, silt debris, beer cans and hypodermic needles. The walls were covered with scrawled-on graffiti no child should read.
The entrance to the tunnel was prime territory for a beautifying project in his new town, Pierce figured. He’d moved to Kannapolis from Pineville a few months earlier.
So he brought his spray cans to the tunnel one weekend, parked at the neighboring County Cleaners dry-cleaning business, and spent five hours on a mural — a playful image of a hand finger-walking down the tunnel stairs.
Passers-by stopped to watch, amazed. A sheriff’s deputy drove by and gave a thumbs-up.
And then, workers at the County Cleaners delivered a piece of news that changed everything: a third grade boy occasionally used the tunnel, with the help of employees at the cleaners, to walk to school on mornings when he missed the school bus.
Pierce decided on the spot: he would transform the entire tunnel, not just the entrance, from a dangerous eyesore into a work of art.
Cleaning out the tunnel became his obsession. He paid one of his duct-cleaning workers to work afternoons and weekends helping him haul trash and debris out of the tunnel by the bucket-full and sweep until the floor was clean.
He installed commercial-size metal trash cans, spray painted them black, and bolted them into the sidewalks at the entrances to both ends of the tunnel.
Pierce figured that high-concept street art pieces, instead of graffiti-style images, would be best for the walls leading down to the tunnel, because they’d be a more welcoming sight to people unsure about spray art in public places.
But inside, he let his sense of humor flow. When friends called Pierce a “tunnel rat” because of all the time he was spending in the tunnel, he decided to paint a floor-to-ceiling rat — one with friendly eyes and big pink ears, so it wouldn’t scare kids.
He used portions of the 120-foot-long tunnel to try out new techniques and backgrounds for his art. He painted the ceiling in a clean, bright white.
He figures he’s invested 150 hours and and about $1,000 of dollars in paint and paid labor since he painted the first piece June 5.
And it’s paid off.
“It’s literally became a landmark within a month,” he said.
Indeed, on a recent Saturday morning, a half-dozen people made a point to drive over, park their cars, and descend the tunnel to see the project for themselves.
Jay Hagen of Charlotte, who passes the tunnel daily on his way to work at a Kannapolis manufacturing plant, had heard about it in his office.
Tracy Vanover brought her two girls, 14-year-old Olivia and 2-year-old Bristol, and the three were so impressed that Vanover planned to bring her two sons by later.
”What I keep getting is ‘Thank you. Thank you for doing this. We need more in our city,‘” Pierce said.
“It’s giving the public a sense of pride in their town; something to be proud of, and something positive happening in their community that they can go talk about.”
The art and cleanup now complete, Pierce has one last improvement project he’d like to add to his tunnel checklist: lights.
Can lights, some with wiring, some without, are still on the ceiling. Pierce has called on city leaders and the local utility company to re-install an electric meter and restore power to the tunnel so residents can cross safely at night. It hasn’t happened yet.
Pierce wishes he could meet the little boy who inspired his summer project, but that’s unlikely.
Tammy Mcdonald, the manager at the County Cleaners who first helped the boy cross the tunnel after seeing him attempt, terrified, to cross the highway by foot, says she doesn’t know his name or where he lives.
Melody Marsh, the principal of Royal Oaks Elementary School where the boy went to school, says she believes his family has moved from the area.
“The last thing I wanted to see was him walking to school,” Pierce says.
But even if it doesn’t happen, Pierce says he’s OK with that.
“I feel like all this will have a butterfly effect somewhere down the road,” he says.
“Maybe it’s a child that walks through here that decides they want to try street art. Maybe it’s a parent who brings a child down here and sees the look on their kids face and decides to start a nonprofit that’s art based,” he says. “You don’t know who it’s going to affect, and in what way.”