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Baltimore Artist Helps Turn Liberian School Into A Mural Masterpiece

David "Nanook" Cogdill, an American street artist, came to Liberia to create a welcoming mural for a school that had been damaged by riots during the Ebola outbreak. i

David "Nanook" Cogdill, an American street artist, came to Liberia to create a welcoming mural for a school that had been damaged by riots during the Ebola outbreak. M. Holden Warren for NPR hide caption

toggle caption M. Holden Warren for NPR
David "Nanook" Cogdill, an American street artist, came to Liberia to create a welcoming mural for a school that had been damaged by riots during the Ebola outbreak.

David "Nanook" Cogdill, an American street artist, came to Liberia to create a welcoming mural for a school that had been damaged by riots during the Ebola outbreak.

M. Holden Warren for NPR

Once the scene of tragedy, a school in the West Point slums of Liberia is now a work of art — and it's an international affair. Street artists from Baltimore collaborated with Liberian artists to create murals on the Nathaniel Varney Massaquoi Elementary and Junior High School.

A glimmering sunset, a vibrantly colored butterfly and a roaring hippo welcomed students last Friday when the school reopened.

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Hundreds of parents, teachers and students in brand-new uniforms proudly paraded through crowded streets to celebrate. A marching band led the way, greeting onlookers with trumpet fanfare.

At the peak of the Ebola outbreak in August, the school served as an Ebola holding center. Angry residents raided the school, forcing the patients to flee and bringing blood-stained bedding out on the streets.

Weeks of rioting left the school in shambles. But after months of disinfecting and major renovations by a coalition of aid agencies and nonprofits, the school is a school once more. It's even got a new face to inspire its returning pupils.

With funding from German Agro Action, one of the organizations that helped rehabilitate the school, street artist David "Nanook" Cogdill, who's worked on murals in Baltimore and other U.S. cities, traveled to West Point to give the building a face lift.

He began by outlining a large and intricate design on the front of the building. Then over the past weeks, Nanook worked with three local artists to fill in the intricate details with colorful paint.

To paint a pygmy hippo, he worked with 14-year-old Abel Dassin, who likes to call himself the youngest artist in Liberia. Nanook coached him on how to paint the skin so that it would look realistic.

Abel Dassin, 14, had a hand in painting the hippo's skin. (The diamond in its mouth is part of local folklore — if you find a hippo and don't kill it, the animal will give you a gem.) i

Abel Dassin, 14, had a hand in painting the hippo's skin. (The diamond in its mouth is part of local folklore — if you find a hippo and don't kill it, the animal will give you a gem.) M. Holden Warren for NPR hide caption

toggle caption M. Holden Warren for NPR
Abel Dassin, 14, had a hand in painting the hippo's skin. (The diamond in its mouth is part of local folklore — if you find a hippo and don't kill it, the animal will give you a gem.)

Abel Dassin, 14, had a hand in painting the hippo's skin. (The diamond in its mouth is part of local folklore — if you find a hippo and don't kill it, the animal will give you a gem.)

M. Holden Warren for NPR

Dassin says he wanted to be part of the project to remember Shacki, a 16-year-old boy who was shot during the riots and later died. "Shacki was of my age. I feel sad for his family. I paint for him," he says. "I also hope that when other children see the painting they feel motivated to go to school."

At the front gates of the school courtyard, Nanook worked with Kingston Sylla, an artist from Guinea who'd moved to Liberia years ago, to cover the concrete wall with shapes of all sizes and colors. The pattern was designed by Baltimore artists Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn and brought to life by the team.

Unlike the other mural, this one faced outward. The idea is that the community should also be able to enjoy the art as well — not just the students.

Guinean artist Kingston Sylla and Nanook spent days painting in the details of an abstract mural that brightens up the concrete wall in front of the school. It was his idea to add pencils to the design. i

Guinean artist Kingston Sylla and Nanook spent days painting in the details of an abstract mural that brightens up the concrete wall in front of the school. It was his idea to add pencils to the design. M. Holden Warren for NPR hide caption

toggle caption M. Holden Warren for NPR
Guinean artist Kingston Sylla and Nanook spent days painting in the details of an abstract mural that brightens up the concrete wall in front of the school. It was his idea to add pencils to the design.

Guinean artist Kingston Sylla and Nanook spent days painting in the details of an abstract mural that brightens up the concrete wall in front of the school. It was his idea to add pencils to the design.

M. Holden Warren for NPR

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