Suicide awareness inspires giant graffiti mural project

Buddy

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Joe “Buddy” Ulrich leans against the east wall of the Billings Hardware store on Broadwater Avenue, where he will soon be painting a large mural based on his sketch.

Joe “Buddy” Ulrich didn’t have any big plans for the sketch he drew a few weeks ago.

Since taking up graffiti art five years ago, Ulrich said, he spends hours every night working out ideas in his sketchbook. The drawing in question showed colored leaves sprouting from a downtown Billings skyline, with “Out Of The Dark” written below it.

He was thinking of the “Out of the Darkness Walks” sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He was also thinking of the two friends he’d lost to suicide, and of the time he almost turned to suicide himself.

He posted the sketch on his Facebook page, where it attracted some interest, and a friend of his talked to a business owner about having Ulrich paint a mural on a wall of his store. Three other business, seeing the Facebook post, offered up walls as well.

Ulrich was mulling those offers when he approached the Billings Hardware store at 906 Broadwater Ave. about helping to sponsor the mural. The owner, T.J. Comstock, responded by offering Ulrich yet another canvas for his mural.

Ulrich chose Billings Hardware for two reasons. One was that it was offering not just one wall but two—most of the south-facing back wall and all of the east-facing side wall.

For another, Ulrich lives just a couple of blocks from the store, and “I’m always walking down there and buying paint, every other day.”

He has already raised enough money for the back wall—including a small grant from the National Alliance on Mental Illness—and he is trying to raise another $2,500 for side wall through a GoFundMe campaign.

He and four helpers—three other graffiti artists and a friend who wants to learn more about it—will start in on the back wall this Saturday, which happens to be the second-to-last day of National Suicide Prevention Week.

Ulrich, whose graffiti tag is “Shylo,” said the back wall will take four or five days. He plans to start in on the side wall in a couple of weeks, depending on the success of the fundraiser.

The mural will wrap around the building, with the words “Out Of The Darkness” on the alley side and either “Into The Light or “There Is Light” on the side wall. He will also have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on the mural, as well as a list of sponsors.

After the mural is complete, people will be invited to submit the names of loved ones who have committed suicide, and Ulrich will write those names on the leaves in the mural.

Ulrich said this is a freestanding project, not sponsored by or in any way connected with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Sketch

A closer look at Ulrich’s sketch.

Ulrich, 22, said he was determined to commit suicide when he was 17, the result of “a mix of a lot of bullies and medical problems.” He confided his plans to a friend in California, who called the police. Officers came to his house in Billings and talked to him, after which Ulrich spent a week in Billings Clinic’s Psychiatric Center.

He continued to do self-harm for four years after that, he said, but he has gradually gotten better and has learned “that it’s OK not to be OK.” The two friends he lost to suicide both lived in Georgia, where he spent most of his life.

Ulrich has also lived in Miles City and Billings off and on, and he moved back to Billings a year ago.

He got into graffiti entirely by accident, he said, when he was living in Miles City, where his mother, Barbara Ulrich, was a pastor at First United Methodist Church. He was helping out with the church’s youth group, Impact, and he was asked to do some repairs and paint something on the wall of the room where the youth group met.

He had no background in art, but he drove over to Billings, bought $100 worth of spray paint at Underground Culture Krew and painted a graffiti-style slogan—“Live, Serve, Impact”—on the youth group wall. And that was all it took.

He’s been painting ever since, working on some smaller murals, adding to the Art Alley behind the Good Earth Market, creating pieces of graffiti art that he sells through Underground Culture Krew and practicing whenever he can. In Georgia, he said, his family had a backyard shed that he adorned with so many murals that it eventually had 30 or 40 coats of paint.

Jade Haynie, the manager of the Billings Hardware store on Broadwater, said one reason they were interested in having Ulrich do a mural on their walls is that they were tired of painting over crude, tagging-style graffiti. They hope the mural will be left untouched.

Meanwhile, Ulrich has been going around and talking to businesses about donating money or supplies, and he was featured on a KULR TV news segment.

“Everything about this project is so far outside my comfort zone,” Ulrich said. “I’m one of the most shy people you’ll ever meet.”

Tyson Middle, the owner of Underground Culture Krew, said Ulrich is like a lot of young graffiti artists he’s mentored over the years, in that most of them “have been through the wringer” and use graffiti art as a form of self-healing.

“They’re all using it for therapy, working through it in one way, shape or form,” Middle said.

He said Ulrich has been known mostly as a “Christian graffiti artist,” doing a lot with religious themes, and as far as he knows Ulrich has never done any illegal tagging.

“Shylo has probably never put even a sticker up,” he said.

Middle will be helping Ulrich on the mural and will be selling him all the paint for the project.

“It’ll be a really good thing,” Middle said. “I’m excited for it.”

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