Claudia LoayzaStories

How a mural project led youth-in-custody to express new hope

By Ellen Fagg Weist | Photography by Todd Anderson

South Salt Lake — “Stay Motivated” is the bold, inspiring message anchoring a new mural decorating the basketball gym at Salt Lake Valley Youth Center, formerly known as the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center.

It’s also a personal motto for graffiti artist Tracy Williams, who led scores of youth-in-custody to create the artwork splashed across three walls. “I’ve got one goal,” Williams said. “I just want to paint this city.”

One panel of the mural includes a message from rapper Kendrick Lamar: “Stand for something or fall for anything,” followed by a spray paint can with inspirational mottos. Other panels include images of blue, snow-topped mountains, a graduate in cap and gown, the skyscrapers of downtown Salt Lake City, and hands in the shape of a heart. Below those images were smaller figures of people offering support and uplift. Those themes grew out of the conversations with youth in the facility, Williams said at the mural’s unveiling ceremony in late February.

“How do we bring healing and hope to spaces that need it?” was the question that inspired the mural partnership, said Nubia Peña, director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.

Williams was all-in on the project. After the artist began working with youth on the mural in January, she was hired to work in the facility.

“You taught me a lot about love and forgiving and forgetting,” Williams told four teen artists (identified only by their first names) at the unveiling ceremony, who represented all the youth who helped on the mural, as well as those who didn’t get the opportunity.

The mural offered the opportunity for soul-searching, said Carlos. “Honestly, it made me feel like a good person inside, even though my past is pretty bad.”

Kevin said the project gave him a chance to do something positive, as well as a chance to reconnect with family members he’s been estranged from.

One of the mural’s images, a strong fist, offered a reminder to Nathan of his commitment to break the cycle, “and not come back.”

Another artist, Dominique, added: “You’re all here right now,” underscoring how the mural offered the chance to be noticed for something beyond the violence in his past. 

The mural was produced through a partnership with the state divisions of Multicultural Affairs, as well as Arts and Museums; along with the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center, Utah Board of Juvenile Justice, Utah Juvenile Justice Services, Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys and Voices for Utah Children.