A Burst of Joy (and Paint) in an Unexpected Place

Paly 2021 graduates Aaron Kim and Leonardo Vargas left their mark on Palo Alto by painting a colorful mural in the downtown area.

Strolling through Downtown Palo Alto, you may be unaware of the beautiful works of art hiding just around the corner. Around the back of the Ace Hardware store , you’ll catch a glimpse of a mural bursting with color made by Palo Alto’s very own teenagers. “It’s this very bright, colorful and joyful image that takes you by surprise and, for a second, you forget everything else and you’re just appreciating what you see,” Kim said.

Palo Alto High School Class of 2021 graduates Aaron Kim and Leonardo Vargas spent the last year and half planning, painting and perfecting their stunning mural on the backside of Ace Hardware in downtown Palo Alto. Both passionate artists already, the pair took on the artistic challenge in order to leave a final mark on the city before departing for college. In the beginning months of the COVID lockdown period, Kim and Vargas communicated with the city to receive approval. Although this set them back a bit, they worked tirelessly to plan the perfect vision of their mural and get to work.

The mural shows a kid joyfully leaping into a pit of multicolored balls, an idea created by Vargas after a while of brainstorming. “When we started, we went through a whole bunch of different ideas,” Kim said. “They were all Leo’s designs, he’s crazy visionary… every day he would come with a handful of new designs, and we would look at them and talk them over together. When he sent me the design of the kid jumping into the pit… I loved it.”

Neither Kim nor Vargas had experience painting on such a large scale or with spray paint, so figuring out the logistics of creating the mural was a challenge. The process involved projecting their design onto the wall to help them create stencils for the different aspects of the mural. 

“We could just project our mock-up design onto the wall, get measurements and see how it actually looked on the wall,” Kim said. “We would go to the location, set up the projector and project our design onto the wall. It was super helpful to see how big [we wanted it and] the placement of everything.”

Their stencils were constructed from cardboard-like material and taped to the wall so they could trace the outline of the parts of the mural from the projected design.

“We taped [a giant board of] that to the wall, set up the projector, and traced the outline of the kid and all the highlights and shadows,” Kim said. “Then we cut it out and taped it together, and that’s what we used to display [the design].”

Painting the mural was a time-consuming process; the pair spent a total of seven hours a day, for seven days, persistently working to finish their masterpiece. The two teenagers functioned well together, using their different artistic skills to delegate the work appropriately.

“We would play off each other’s skills and strong suits,” Kim said. “Ultimately, we wanted the best product. So if he was better at tracing then he would do that… it was a very natural process of dividing up the work.”

It was not an easy process for them to produce the final product from start to finish; the pair faced many challenges from gaining approval to the city, finding the time to work on the mural amidst senior year stress and preparing all the materials for the actual construction of the mural.  “I like to think of this as a story of perseverance,” Kim said. 

When designing their mural, Kim and Vargas strived to create a joyful, colorful piece of artwork that would brighten any passerby’s day, and they did just that. 

“It was just about spreading a little bit of joy in an unexpected place,” Kim said. “It’s this mural on an alleyway right on the back of the wall, where you can’t really see it unless you’re kind of seeking it out… if anyone were to walk down and see it, it would just be such a happy surprise.”

(Photos courtesy of Aaron Kim)