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How a Tattoo Artist Transformed a Run-Down Topeka Neighborhood into a Thriving Arts District

How a Tattoo Artist Transformed a Run-Down Topeka Neighborhood into a Thriving Arts District

Jan Mercker

Jennifer Bohlander’s murals kicked off the revitalization of North Topeka, known as the NOTO Arts and Entertainment District

You might not think of Kansas as a hotbed of public art. But Topeka has officially caught mural fever. In the last three years, murals have popped up all over the city and transformed the once run-down North Topeka neighborhood known as NOTO. And it all started with a local tattoo artist on a mission.

‘It gets contagious’

Jennifer Bohlander is a mom, an Army vet, a businesswoman and the kind of person who gets things done. She’s also an artist, fiercely committed to Topeka’s NOTO neighborhood where she and her husband live and work.

At the beginning of 2018,  Bohlander was inspired to bring a burst of public art to her up-and-coming neighborhood.

“I basically made a New Year’s resolution that year to do five murals by the end of the year.”

But getting community buy-in for her first project didn’t happen right away.

“I had to go and beg people for walls,” she said.

Bohlander remembers negotiating for her first wall with a skeptical business owner.

“The first thing she said was, ‘Can you even paint?’” Bohlander said with a laugh.

That first mural, the postcard-style “Greetings from Topeka” is now a community touchpoint. And Bohlander’s sunflowers and elephants murals in vibrant NOTO, where Bohlander owns a tattoo shop and her husband Jon runs a popular restaurant, are changing the vibe of the neighborhood.

“On Sunday, it feels like senior picture day down here,” she said. “Sundays used to be completely dead and silent…Now the district is full of photographers and kids roaming around taking pictures.”

Jennifer Bohlander’s expansive elephant mural is another draw for people to visit, and take pictures, in Topeka’s NOTO Arts & Entertainment District.

For Bohlander, there’s something extra satisfying in the accomplishment of getting a small, relatively conservative city to embrace public art. 

“When [a project] comes together, people go, ‘Oh–I was a part of that. That’s my wall.’” she said. “And then it starts spreading. It gets contagious.”

‘The entire space is homegrown’

The drive to transform the once run-down North Topeka neighborhood into an arts district was launched a decade ago by civic leader Anita Wolgast and Washburn University professor John Hunter. The duo ran the Heartland Visioning organization created to improve Topeka’s quality of life. Next month, the city celebrates ten years of NOTO as an arts and entertainment district.

The transformation took a leap of faith and plenty of elbow grease from business owners. Bohlander owns the Matryoshka Tattoo shop, and Jon runs the popular Wheel Barrel restaurant, which specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

“The entire space is homegrown,” Bohlander said of NOTO. “This is literally people working their butts off on their own businesses, fixing buildings, doing the best they can.”

Bohlander is working with the city’s arts agency ArtsConnect, which coordinates murals and other public art all over the city to encourage more artists to take on mural projects. Bohlander says businesses now tend to think of her as the go-to for murals, but she wants to share the love and encourage other artists and volunteers to jump in.

“I think it gave people ideas of what could be done but we need more doers,” Bohlander said.

Beyond NOTO, murals abound in Topeka

Mural fever in Topeka is spreading way beyond the trendy NOTO district. The ArtsConnect organization is coordinating murals all over the city.

The vibrant Brown v. Board of Education mural, created by Kansas City artist Michael Toombs with the help of more than 30 artists and 2,000 volunteers, is a draw for tourists and locals alike. The mural was completed in 2018 at the city’s Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.

The colorful Great Mural Wall in Chesney Park near downtown took on the ambitious goal of covering Topeka’s history in one enormous painting. And in East Topeka, the Oakland Murals celebrate the city’s Latino community. Artists Maria Guzman and Jamie Colon completed the first pair of murals. Since then, several  more murals have been painted on nearby buildings. Last year, ArtsConnect unveiled the “Common Ground” mural at the Topeka Police Department, celebrating the contributions of past and present police officers.

‘One of those love-at-first-sight things’

Bohlander is a fierce, if unconventional, advocate for public art. 

She grew up in the Midwest, with a lifelong talent and passion for art. But she gave up a scholarship to art school to join the Army in line with her military family’s expectations. A career as an artist “wasn’t something my family taught me was reasonable,” she said. After serving as a Russian linguist in Berlin, Bohlander was sent to Fort Riley near Topeka. She admits she wasn’t thrilled about the posting after her tour in Europe. But it brought a twist of fate that would change her life — and keep her in Kansas.

Bohlander met Jon on the day she arrived at Fort Riley. They struck up a conversation about a new tattoo he’d had done, and she showed him a design she’d drawn for a tattoo of her own. 

“It was one of those love at first sight things,” she said.

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Topeka murals
Jennifer Bohlander’s Sunflower mural in NOTO, an arts district in North Topeka.

The couple got married three months later, and Bohlander began her path to a new career. When she went to get her original tattoo done in Topeka, the owner of the shop was impressed with her work. 

“Nobody drew their own stuff back then,” she said.

Bohlander took the tattoo shop owner up on his offer to train her as an artist, and when it came time to re-enlist, she declined. In 2014, she opened Matryoshka, and Jon opened the restaurant a few years later. The couple was initially living in the country 20 miles north of the city while working long days at their North Topeka businesses. So they sold their house and moved to NOTO, building even stronger ties with the community.

‘The center of the revolution’

For Bohlander, the creativity of her tattoo work is usually enough to satisfy her artistic impulses, but she’s occasionally moved to do something on a bigger scale.

“If an artist doesn’t get to create almost every day, it feels like madness is creeping in,” she said. “I tell people it’s like having an itchy brain and whenever you make art, it soothes it.”

Bohlander still paints and maintains her Bohland Art Facebook page. She occasionally sells her work on request but doesn’t actively market them. But when her tattoo shop was closed during the early days of the COVID pandemic, she cranked out a dozen paintings and hundreds of drawings.

After the initial slate of murals more than two years ago, she’s stepped back from public art, but she’ll still put one up when she gets inspired. Last fall, she did a piece she calls “You Go Girl” with a girl swinging in the air and another girl encouraging her from the ground. But her mission is still to get more artists involved in the renaissance in the neighborhood and city she loves.

“I keep telling people this is the center of the revolution. If Topeka, Kansas can appreciate art and what the arts can do for communities, then anywhere can.”

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