Killa City: Luke Rocha’s study in crime

A study in crime

Local artist uses collage, photography to examine violence in Kansas City

Someone who pays attention to the local news might have a hard time knowing what to make of all the headlines and press clippings about violent crime in the city.

For Luke Rocha, the solution was an unusual one — make art out of them.

Last August, the photographer, collage artist and music producer decided to combine the news clippings he’d saved from 2005 with his own photos to create a zine documenting that particularly bloody year in Kansas City.

“I was trying to capture the environment and pulse of the city back then,” Rocha said. “Around 2005 the Kansas City Star was keeping a tally on murders, and about every other day the front page of the local section would have a new homicide.”

gallery photo

The zine, which Rocha titled “Killa City 2005: A Study in Crime,” includes Rocha’s photos, news clippings from the Star, adverts for addiction recovery services, a drawing given to him by a homeless man, and blown-up quotations from youth summits on violence.

“Killa City” is a nickname for KC popular on the streets and in local rap music. It’s also the title of the Pitch crime blog written by Justin Kendall, whose year-end summary on KCMO homicides is required reading for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of murder in the city.

When read on a daily basis, the murder reports are easy to become accustomed and desensitized to. But when bound together, the clippings point to a larger narrative — however complex and mysterious in origin. While reading through the details of each case a few years after the fact, unanswered questions about each one come to the surface: Was the case ever solved? How did it affect the lives of those involved? And how did it come to this?

Rocha says his purpose in making the zine was not to politicize the events but to present them from an observational standpoint. The news clippings are mixed in with photographs he took of anti-crime murals, gang graffiti — even a teenager in a cast holding an unloaded pistol. For the cover image, Rocha chose a polaroid of a billboard reading “The Silence is Killing Us,” a slogan he says best summed up that period for him.

Collage art is second-nature for Rocha, who produces both art and music for his label, Symbol Heavy. Rocha was recently awarded an Urban Culture Project studio residency, and his “Project Porta-Sound” installation is on display at a group show at the Paragraph Gallery through March 4. A 2008 video interview gives some insight into his creative process.

“Kansas City has a great history, and there are a lot of cool things going on here,” Rocha said. “But sometimes it feels like this city has a dark cloud over its head.”

While the zine and collage art might not cause the cloud to dissipate, they do allow one to view it from a different angle. And with discussion and news coverage of crime operating on a largely cyclical basis, even a slight change in perspective on these subjects can be worthwhile.

For information about obtaining the zine, contact luke@symbolheavy.com. His photography can be viewed atwww.dimestoremysticism.com.

This story originally appeared in KCFreePress.com on January 21, 2010