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The Scarlet & Black

Bob’s gets a makeover: Students add their own art to the underground cafe

Students spent three hours repainting the iconic walls of Bob’s Underground Cafe on Sunday. The effort was part of a larger movement to get Bob’s operational again and open it for student use. Photo by Liz Paik.

Before shutting down last year, Bob’s Underground Cafe was a fixture of the Grinnell community, and part of its appeal has always been the art on its walls. On April 28, a group of students repainted Bob’s as an effort to reinvigorate the space.

“I first saw this space on admitted student’s day. They were serving smoothies or something, and I spent four hours in here just kind of looking at the walls,” said Oscar Buchanan ’21. “I was kind of surprised that there were several decades of students’ thoughts and random musings up, and when it shut down it disappointed me, because it wasn’t going to be a living space anymore. It wasn’t going to be a place that students could make their own, it was just kind of frozen in time when it shut down. I think there’s a lot of value to having a place that we can change and where we can put up our own thoughts and pieces of ourselves.”

Now, Buchanan and a “ragtag band of people,” as described by Tess Kerkhof ‘21, are working to reinvigorate Bob’s and make it a working space once more. Part of that effort was an event on Sunday, April 28 that allowed students to come repaint Bob’s.

The Facebook page for the event called on students to make Bob’s their own again, saying, “Come make your mark in Bob’s! The mural walls need a little love, and only you can help.”

For three hours, dozens of students cycled through Bob’s, picking up paint brushes and leaving their art – including dragons, cows and even the words “95% of Grinnellians get married at Tit Head” – on the walls of the Underground Cafe for future Grinnellians.

Kerkhof originally had the idea to host an event centered around repainting Bob’s when she realized that no one had painted on the walls since approximately 2015. For students who arrived after that, the paintings on the walls of Bob’s, although ranging from beautiful to hilarious to bizarre, can feel like historical artifacts of what Bob’s used to be before their arrival. Kerkhof wanted to change the stagnancy of Bob’s walls to show that it does not simply belong to the past.

“I thought it would give current students much more of a sense of ownership of this place if they could add to the murals and then come back and see their artwork,” she said, “because right now it’s the stuff from – we’re thinking Class of 2015 was the latest round of painting that was done. And so yes, the art is very cool and unique but it’s not as much of a living, breathing space as it could be, so we just wanted to make that a possibility.”

After receiving backing from the Art SEPC and securing SGA funding, Kerkhof set out to plan the event, bringing paint and brushes to Bob’s and setting them up for students to use freely.

Vice President-Elect of Student Affairs Saketan Anand ’21, another student currently working to reinvigorate Bob’s, said there is an element of self-governance implicit in allowing students to freely paint whatever they want on the walls of Bob’s to exist for years. He feels that this is emblematic of the larger theme of self-governance at play in the space.

“I think [Bob’s is] one of the few vestiges of true self-gov, and this event has me thinking about how this is such a cool self-gov thing to do,” said Anand of the painting.

This event is part of a wider effort to give students more opportunities to make Bob’s their own in the wake of its discontinuation as a food service location. The students involved in the effort recently succeeded in creating more hours when Bob’s would be open to the public, and they are working on a proposal to create more opportunities to use Bob’s, which they hope to finish by the end of the year. Sriyash Kadiyala ’21, another of the students involved, hopes to model this proposal off of a space similar to Bob’s that he saw on a recent trip to Oberlin College.

Kerkhof, Anand and Kadiyala hope that other interested students reach out to them to get involved and help in this effort. Anand said, “We need to prove that we still care about this space to the people who we’re working with on this, and part of that is being involved.”

Students spent three hours repainting the iconic walls of Bob’s Underground Cafe on Sunday. The effort was part of a larger movement to get Bob’s operational again and open it for student use. Photo by Liz Paik.
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