Michael Schultz’s family was surprised he didn’t burst into flames when he walked into church.
As a graffiti artist, Schultz estimates he painted 60 boxcars by the age of 17. Now, as an adult, his days of covert canvassing are behind him. He still paints, but does so in a legal and uplifting way, showing others the power of self-expression.
Schultz, along with Pastor Lars Hammar, organizes Open Space Church, a location promoting a crossroads of art and faith for the Tucson community.
“You have no idea how much difficulty it took for me to become this calm guy I am today,” Schultz, 39, said. “And I’m glad I get to show this new path to people. Because if I saw it when I was their age, I would have jumped on it immediately.”
Schultz, known by the artist name Citizen Klown, grew up on Tucson’s south side as an art-obsessed kid. When he saw graffiti artists painting a nearby wall, he became inspired.
“Next thing I knew, I’m in the backyard getting yelled at for painting on a white wall,” Schultz said.
Throughout his teenage years, Schultz adopted his artist name and honed his craft, keeping it a secret from his mom. He would head into the desert to paint, covering trains while dodging snakes and police. But as he aged, the risks of being caught weighed on him, as did the physical toll sneaking around urban areas.
As an adult, he began making his painting more community-oriented by inviting other graffiti artists to paint in his front yard.
“At first, we got a lot of odd looks from the neighbors,” Schultz said. “But eventually they would come over and shake my hand. I met everyone in the neighborhood through art.”
Schultz first connected with the Open Space Church in 2015 through fellow graffiti artist Ramon “Ray” Encinas. The Lutheran Church Of The Foothills was hosting a graffiti art show that Hammar helped organize.
“When I first met Michael, my first impression was that he was just a quiet guy,” Hammar said. “But the quality of his work was just insane.”
Hammar and Schultz connected over a mutual passion of self-expression and art’s importance in the community.
“He told me, ‘I haven’t connected with God in a while, but I think it’s time,’” Hammar said.
The Open Space Church formed in 2014 as a place to explore and experience God through various artistic mediums. Founded by Hammar, an Evangelical Lutheran Pastor, Open Space Church’s worship art programs include more than graffiti, such as music, meditation and interactive art, in addition to more typical prayer and scripture elements.
Hammar, alongside local graffiti artists and musicians, started the location as a place to “live in the faith without having to check who we were at the door, without having to give up our creativity, our art, our passions and our selves in order to fit in to a churchy mold.”
Open Space, rented out of studio space at Speedway and Swan, was founded with the belief of giving art to the community for free, and encouraging healthy (as well as legal) self-expression. Open Space works closely with the Lord of Grace Lutheran Church, which Hammar also helps lead.
“I believe that church is where we come to experience God and live in the way of Jesus, regardless of your income or background or however many questions and doubts you might have,” Hammar said. “Church is where we come to explore these things, and discover together.”
While Schultz had painted in front of audiences before, these performances were at hip-hop shows, not in a church.
“Growing up, I was always the guy being chased out of yards, but now I was being welcomed into one,” Schultz said. “I told myself, ‘These guys had faith in me, so I’m going to give them a shot.’”
While Schultz’s art used consist of skulls and more aggressive imagery, it now includes brighter colors, religious symbols, and occasionally uplifting wording. According to Schultz, this is because we see enough negativity in the world.
“A lot of people assumed because I stopped doing illegal activities, that I must be getting paid, that I’m a sell-out,” Schultz said. “But I don’t ask for money, it’s just paper. I just want to paint. It’s my therapy.”
Schultz has since worked on mural projects in Ajo, Las Vegas, at the Tucson Hip Hop Festival, and throughout Tucson. While some of these were made independently, others were painted in collaboration with Open Space Church.
“I’ll have people say, ‘well, you’re letting us paint, but you’re just doing it because you want us to join your church’,” Hammar said. “And they’re certainly welcome, but joining is not a prerequisite. We’re just giving because it’s good to give.”
The public not understanding the church’s concept is Open Space’s biggest challenge, Hammar said. While some view them as too “churchy,” others view them as not “churchy” enough. Simply accepting graffiti as an art form in the church can prove a risk in and of itself, as Schultz says a police officer once referred to graffiti artists as “social terrorists.” Schultz rebukes this, saying that while he isn’t prettiest thing to look at, he certainly isn’t a monster.
“When you look at Jesus, while he did go into the synagogues, he probably spent a lot more time out on the streets,” Hammar said.
Hammar has two current goals for Open Space: to achieve financial self-sufficiency, and to spread the word about the true concept of the church. While there is a stigma associated with graffiti, Hammar and Schultz hope to continue spreading the message of faith attainable for any art medium.
“No matter what you’re going through, there’s hope for you. You can find grace,” Schultz said. “I’m just here to leave a bit of color in the world, in as many places as I can.”