If these walls could talk: Pleasant Grove artist’s decade-long project brings drainage canal to life

Inspired by classic ’80s cartoons and the community that raised him, Dallas artist Khadafy “DAP” Branch’s homegrown graffiti museum is all about memory, legacy and Pleasant Grove pride.

By Toluwani Osibamowo, KERAApril 18, 2023 9:17 am, ,

From KERA:

A wide, murky stream trickles down a concrete drainage canal. Its muddy green surface reflects the world of colors and shapes on the parallel walls that tower over it.

The graffiti on these walls stretches for half a mile. On one wall, you’ll find the trippy airbrushed lettering you’d see under an overpass. On another stands a melancholy black-and-white scene of a New York subway station.

These are the Walls of Pleasant Grove, where Dallas artist Khadafy “DAP” Branch has spent nearly 13 years turning a canal for wastewater into a canvas for his vibrant and nostalgic murals.

While largely unknown by locals, it’s caught the attention of art lovers across the country.

“For the most part, I do get that reaction that I’m looking for, like, ‘Oh, wow, this is beautiful artwork, it’s not like the bad graffiti’ – that’s what they always say,’” Branch said. “’This is like the mural stuff, you know, this is the good graffiti.’”

Branch, 41, moved with his family from North Dallas to Pleasant Grove when he was in third grade. He had a typical childhood; his parents worked, and he would come home from school to watch his favorite cartoons:ThunderCats, He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

These animated classics, as well as his deep-rooted love of hip-hop, fueled his creative spark.

The proof is in the paint. One mural captures She-Ra’s determined glare as she flies on her Pegasus, wielding a sword. In another, an homage to Star Wars is also a reference to Style Wars, a 1983 documentary about hip-hop culture and graffiti.

The canal runs under Lake June Road. The cove under that road is where Branch says his first painting came to life.

“I still remember it to this day,” he said. “It was a DAP piece, and it has a lion eating a gazelle with a antelope overlooking the background. And it said, ‘survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten.’”

Discovering the walls

Branch came across the walls as a teen in the late 1990s, when he said the graffiti there was mostly associated with gangs. That included tags or throw-ups, simpler drawings that an artist can use to quickly sign their name.

Branch eventually moved to a neighborhood further away from the walls. When he returned in 2005 to visit a friend, he discovered a flourishing community of street artists in the canal.

“It eventually transferred from being gang graffiti to art,” Branch said. “And as soon as I realized that I can be artistic about it, we just started doing more walls.”

Emily Nava / KERA

Khadafy "DAP" Branch creates graffiti art in "The Walls of Pleasant Grove." The walls are located in a drainage system where spray paint fills the walls with colors. Artists from all over the country have contributed to the walls.

Most of the artwork on the walls is his, but he makes it clear they’re the product of past and present influences. Branch said his mentor, an older artist named Kid Chaos, encouraged him to dive deeper into the history of the art form.

So, Branch read the few books available on graffiti and later traveled to New York, where he learned from the Black and Latino artists at the forefront of street art innovation.

“From there, I just became DAP, you know, started focusing more on creating more different style letters, different color schemes and just trying to get better,” Branch said. “I’m still trying to get better.”

This place is home

In those early years, dozens of artists came to the walls to create pieces, he said. But near the end of 2011, the city of Dallas remodeled the canal’s walls, and Branch was the only artist who stayed and continued to paint.

He worried the city would discover his art in the canal, which is owned by the Dallas Water Utilities Department. Branch said he knew which backyards didn’t have fences and which houses didn’t have dogs — all to make for a quick getaway in case someone decided his art was vandalism.

“When someone mentions graffiti, and they instantly think you’re writing or damaging property. This — this can’t be further from what that is,” he said.

But Branch’s first piece post-remodel went untouched for more than a year. He said he took that as a sign to keep going and invited other artists to come back and paint.

In addition to pop culture imagery, Branch’s art is also steeped in the spirit of Pleasant Grove. The first murals at the entrance to the walls shows the mascots of southeast Dallas high schools — the Samuell Spartans, the Skyline Raiders — housed in the ten-feet-tall block letters of the word “GROVE.”

The “GROVE” mural also contains a painting of Buckner Boulevard, a key road in the neighborhood, and a Dallas Police Department badge, along with what Branch hopes is a guiding motto: “To protect and serve… with honor and accountability.”

Pleasant Grove, Branch said, gets a bad rap from outsiders for the prevalence of drug use and gang violence. But that’s not the neighborhood he knows now.

“It’s just like anywhere,” he said. “It’s not bad people; it’s people that come to the neighborhood that’s not from the neighborhood. I mean, this place is home.”

Toluwani Osibamowo / KERA

Though Branch's art has won the support of community and some city leaders, he said some residents have tried to ruin the walls by spraying a streak of white paint as seen here.

A little help from the city

These days, Branch’s artwork is not just protected, but celebrated. He said that’s thanks to the help of District 5 councilmember Jaime Resendez, another Pleasant Grove native.

Resendez met Branch in 2019, shortly after the councilmember was elected. Resendez said it was his own neighborhood pride and love of the arts that pushed him to use his position to protect Branch’s art.

“He was hesitant to engage with municipal government, and I was willing to put my credibility on the line in order for DAP’s creation to be kind of highlighted as opposed to stifled,” Resendez said.

There’s a deeper reason too: his fiancé’s sister Ana-Alecia Ayala graduated from W. W. Samuell High School in 2002, just like Branch.

When Ayala died of cancer in 2017, Branch honored her memory with a portrait on one of his walls.

“I just gained another level of respect for DAP,” Resendez said. “His willingness to do something like that, it just highlighted the type of friendship and the type of person that DAP is, to highlight a community member in that manner.”

So, after several discussions with Dallas Water Utilities and the Office of Arts and Culture — and after some pandemic delays — the city officially recognized the Walls of Pleasant Grove as part of Dallas’ arts community at an event called Styles Fest last October.

Toluwani Osibamowo / KERA

Khadafy "DAP" Branch, left, stands with Tamitha Curiel, District 5 commissioner for the City of Dallas' Office of Arts and Culture, in the drainage canal where The Walls of Pleasant Grove reside. Curiel helped plan Styles Fest in 2022, where residents and artists were invited to view the walls.

Neighbors and visitors enjoyed a night of music and family activities, including a visit to the walls. Graffiti artists from across the country came to paint. Branch estimates artists from about 30 different cities are now represented on the walls.

Tamitha Curiel, the District 5 commissioner for the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, helped make Styles Fest happen. A fellow artist, Curiel spent her childhood in Pleasant Grove and had no idea the walls were on their way to becoming a work of art. Now, she gives tours to curious residents from across the city.

“I think it just amplifies some of the elements that already exist in Pleasant Grove that other people don’t know about,” Curiel said. “It’s that there’s a lot of good people, a lot of people who work hard. People who are creative, people who hustle.”

What the future holds

By day, Branch works in quality control for a sister company of Toyota. But the walls are his true passion. Still, he said he doesn’t want to limit himself.

“As much as I love this, I don’t see myself doing this in the next five years,” Branch said. “Like, I’m still going to host the events, you know, but I want to move towards other things.”

As a self-described Dallas urban art historian, Branch said he wants to use the platform the Walls of Pleasant Grove has given him to showcase the work of other artists. His YouTube channel features one-on-one interviews with artists from Texas and across the country, and he’s even writing a book about the history of Dallas graffiti.

Years have passed, and some of Branch’s art heroes are gone. He wants to enshrine their legacies — not just for the culture, but for their loved ones. That’s why the videos are so important.

“There’s nothing like if someone was to pass away, their family can still see the person talking, hear their voice. That means a lot to people, you know?” Branch said. “So, I wanted to do that. That way, they can tell their side of the story from their point of view and for their family members to hear their voice if they were to pass away.”

It’s something he said he wants for himself, too.

If you’re interested in visiting The Walls of Pleasant Grove, you can contact District 5 Office of Arts and Culture Commissioner Tamitha Curiel at tamithacuriel@gmail.com. Tours are limited and allowed upon request.

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