art art exhibit

Using Street Art to Get Kids to Stay Hydrated

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 Rob Samuelson

Children can be difficult creatures. They're little havoc machines. They yell, they're hyper, their hands are sticky with who knows what. And they spill. Boy, oh boy, do they spill. That liter of Coke you had on the table for the family party? It's now on the floor, pooling around the cat. Your glass of wine? A tossed plush bear takes care of that. It may have something to do with them consuming sugar at alarming rates.

It's not necessarily a good thing for them to do that, despite what every television commercial break might make you think. This is something WAT-AAH, a bottled water company based in New York, is acutely aware of.

WAT-AAH's founder and CEO, Rose Cameron, said her kids' unhealthy eating and drinking habits made her rethink her own choices. As someone who used to do advertising and marketing for places like Hershey's Chocolate, Cameron tried to think of positive ways to impact her kids' lives.

“They were consuming sodas, Fanta, Coke, Sprite, [so] I said, 'I'm going to have to figure out a way to convince them [to drink water],'” she says.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. How do you convince children to do anything? Getting them involved and making them feel like they have a stake in their choices helps, Cameron says.

“The foundation of WAT-AAH is always to make water cool and exciting to kids, because to them it's boring,” she says. “The original bottle designs were done by my kids, actually, the boy with the big mouth screaming, 'Drink WAT-AAH!'”

Cameron thought more was possible to make her kids think water was a good, cool idea.

“They wanted something that's not conventional, something that would break the rules, one that would grab kids' attention,” she says.

Three years after beginning the brand, Cameron took a walk with her kids around New York City, where they saw a mural done by street artist Kenny Scharf.

“[Her kids] said, 'Mommy, you gotta put that on your bottle to make it even cooler.'”

Around this time, Partnership for a Healthier America, whose chairperson is First Lady Michelle Obama, began a program called Drink Up, and contacted Cameron about working on it.

“I said to myself, once I got to know [the organization], 'This would be a great opportunity to bring in that idea that my son had,'” she says. “Why don't I invite all these street artists and see if they're into it as much as I am to incorporate their art and their creativity to develop an original piece that would be translated into a label for the bottles.”

She contacted Scharf, whose mural had captured her kids' attention.

“He right away loved the agenda, said, 'I'm in,'” she says.

Scharf's reputation in the New York street art scene garnered interest from 14 of his peers, and they partnered with Cameron on an art exhibit in New York this past February, featuring the original artwork that would soon be translated into WAT-AAH bottle labels.

“My promise to Drink Up and the First Lady is to take this national,” she says, and they have already started with exhibits in Washington D.C., and last weekend they were in Chicago showing artwork at Moonlight Studios.

Cameron says these exhibits, and the bottle labels they help produce, go a long way toward making children eager to drink water over sugary cans of diabetes.

“Once you see those bottles, young and old, you gravitate towards them, you want to hold them, you want to drink them,” she says. “My kids explained this, 'I can now relate to the bottle even more.'”

This should be music to the ears of the artists whose work made up the exhibit, like New Yorker Smurfo U Dirty, who had two pieces and also pulled double duty as the event's DJ.

“[The pieces are] from a series I'm doing right now, called Monsters of My Mind,” which is inspired by what his mother said when she saw the first pieces in the set. “I'm making a bunch of monsters, taking different styles of cartoons and basically making them into my own versions of my own monsters and characters of myself.”

His work is a cuddlier, abstract version of the Cartoon Network style for WAT-AAH, not the darker places one's imagination might go when hearing those words.

And they, like the rest of the exhibit, are bright. Dayglow yellows, oranges, and reds are placed opposite pastels, with a sense of athletic fluidity to every brushstroke. There's urgency and activity to what Smurfo and his Drink Up cohorts do, and that trickles down to the labels they create.

I respect the whole agenda and the whole movement that WAT-AAH is doing, I think it's actually working,” he says. “I see a lot of kids [and] I'm getting a lot of enthusiasm from adults my own age – I'm 25 – a lot of people are on board with this.”

But Cameron and exhibit artists like Smurfo didn't want to be seen as carpet baggers from afar, and they recognized Chicago's street art scene as nothing to sneeze at. Cameron contacted Chicago artist POSE about doing a pre-show experiment with “young, up-and-coming graffiti and street artists” on a mural at Racine and Lake to promote the event and the brand's hydration message.  They combined with the original 14 artists to have a burgeoning exhibit of 35.

POSE says he spent the time “ kind of mentoring them through the process” of making a street mural, which some of them had not done.

In a weird way it was more fulfilling doing it with them than just doing it myself,” he says.

As someone who's spent his whole life doing graffiti and street art, I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to showcase my work for a good cause,” he says, because he's a father of two daughters. “Being someone who didn't have a preset plan and I was able to find something, it's really fun to be able to help mentor kids who maybe are sort of a mirror image of what I was, to help them see their vision through.”

From POSE's experiences, it sounds like WAT-AAH's and Drink Up's plans are coming to fruition.

“I appreciate them being so invested,” he says.

For more photos of the event, check out Rob's personal blog, Defeating Boredom.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said Ms. Cameron had a daughter with diabetes.  It was misheard in transcription.  We regret the mistake.

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