World-wide movement comes to life

Alibi’s ‘Before I Die’ installation deemed a ‘living canvas’ for Uptown

The Hillcrest “Before I Die” wall, located at the Alibi on Richmond Street and University Avenue (Photo by Cornelia Kurtew)

By Morgan M. Hurley | SDUN Assistant Editor

In an attempt to help a good friend with subtle business modifications to expand his brand, a Mission Hills resident decided creating a not-so-subtle portal to what has become a “global art project” would not only benefit his friend’s bar, but bring the Uptown community a little closer together.

So far he can chalk up his plan as a success.

Inspired by the “Before I Die” project, Andrew Barajas’s creation consists of a public wall space covered with chalkboard paint, then stenciled with the words “Before I die I want to …” followed by blank lines, inviting passersby to grab a piece of chalk and finish the sentence with whatever they wish.

Installed without much fanfare one Saturday near the end of June, the red-framed chalkboard wall in Hillcrest spans 40 feet and stands six feet tall, almost the entire length of the Richmond Avenue side of the Alibi bar at 1403 University Ave. Since then, hundreds of people have approached the chalkboard to publicly share dreams certain to have been pulled directly from their personal bucket lists.

“We are very similar, because we all have the same wants in life: love, travel, [forgiveness], compassion,” Barajas said. “In today’s society, we’re Facebooking. I’m Instagramming, I’m Tweeting, I’m emailing and we’re like this,” he said, forcing his head down as if he were looking at a mobile device. “I realized this was perfect.”

Barajas got the idea after researching the work of Candy Chang, an urban planning and design architect and Senior TED Fellow.  Chang is also co-founder of Civic Center, “a creative studio dedicated to restoring dignity to public space,” as stated on her website.

After the loss of a loved one, Chang decided to use the art project to help heal and clarify her life. The Pittsburgh native soon took over the side of an abandoned, dilapidated building in her New Orleans neighborhood, and the first “Before I Die” wall was born. It stood from February to September 2011, but gained visibility well beyond the Louisiana city.

To date, dozens of installations have been hosted in locations all over the world, some with minor twists on the theme, which Chang calls “remixes.” The walls vary in size and shape. Some have lasted a day, others a week, and still others have lasted from six months to a year, but despite the size or length of each wall’s life, the project as a whole has made its way – and its impact – around the globe.

Like Chang’s initial wall in New Orleans, the Alibi wall has ten panels of “Before I Die I want to …” stencils, but with its sound construction and bright, sturdy frame, a much longer life is expected of the wall Barajas put up in Hillcrest.

This is not the first “Before I Die” installation for San Diego. The first, which survived six months from September 2011 to March 2012, was on the side of the Triangle Building, a gallery and art space located at Adams Avenue and Boundary Street in Normal Heights.

The first San Diego installation in Normal Heights, which is now painted over (Courtesy Civic Center)

Adrienne Jumelet, one of the creative forces behind that first installation, learned of Chang’s project through a blog and said she and friend Janella Davidson, who offered up the wall space, along with several others, worked together on the project.

The Triangle Building installation remained busy for months, due in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but unfortunately, Jumelet said, the creative team’s busy lives diminished their attention to the art project and repeated vandalism eventually caused the group to simply paint over the wall.

Jumelet, who still hosts a Facebook page for the Triangle Building wall, showed her and Davidson’s support for the Hillcrest installation, saying, “We are both happy to see the project is still alive in San Diego, even if it isn’t at our original location.”

Barajas said he brought Chang’s concept for the installation to longtime Alibi owner Joe Patron, who had never seen the Normal Heights project but liked with the idea. Then, Barajas said he took Patron outside.

“This is the wall to do it on,” Barajas said he told Patron.

“In my opinion, this is the busiest corner in all of Hillcrest,” Barajas said, calling the intersection a true “people corner.”

Patron was convinced, and the idea could not have come at a more perfect time for the bar’s owners.

The two men said they had been brainstorming for months for ways to re-introduce the Alibi to the Uptown neighborhood, and incorporating art and live music was already a big part of those plans. With the wall, Barajas said they hope to bring new vitality to the neighborhood, and keep the bar, which has been a Hillcrest institution for 40 years, a regular destination in people’s minds.

“Yes, it’s a dive bar. It will always be a dive bar; we don’t want to change that. [That] is part of its character, but what we do want to change is, ‘hey, we’re friendly, come in. We’re here in the community,’” Barajas said.

Next, Barajas and Christopher Dunn, the Alibi’s maintenance person, got to work. Barajas gave credit to Dunn for the “clean look” of the Hillcrest installation and called it a “living canvas.”

Initially, Alibi staff kept an eye on the wall, and when all the available spaces were filled, generally every three days or so, they would wipe down the wall. In recent weeks as its popularity and visibility increased, the wipe-downs have increased to daily.

(l to r) Andrew Barajas and his daughter Emma stand near the wall he brought to the Alibi in Hillcrest. (Photo by SDUN)


Barajas said he expects this coming Pride weekend to be a busy one for the Hillcrest wall, but Pride or no Pride, revelers will not be allowed to deface it with profanity. That is because the single father of a 7-year-old girl said he takes the public aspect of the wall very seriously, and insures the Alibi staff check the wall throughout the day for obscenities, sexual content and anything else unfavorable.

“We realize it’s a public space and that it’s our duty, since we put it up, to monitor that,” Barajas said.

Other artwork is also coming to the Alibi and plans to make the neighborhood staple more accessible continue to evolve. Inside, Barajas created a photo collage containing pictures that span the life of the bar and the family who has owned since its opening.

Regular live music is also planned, and an art show is scheduled for July 28, featuring work by Dan O’Brien and Danica Molenaar of Night Owl Tattoo.

To see more information about all “Before I Die” walls currently documented, visit

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