Kenny McBride colored in the rainbow hair of the woman he has painted on the front wall of Surreal Salon Suites on Monday, Jan. 8. It’s one of many murals he’s put his brush to around Long Beach to “inspire people in their spaces.”

But with every passing day, painting has become harder for him, taking up more of his energy and making him more tired. He weighs 160 pounds, down 80 since Jan. 2023. Recently, he said his knee gave out while climbing down a ladder, causing him to collapse.

At 38 years old, he is battling myelofibrosis, a rare cancer that scars bone marrow and disrupts normal blood cell production. He said his hematologist has only seen three cases of this during his career.

“Part of the hard part of what I’m going through right now is that ability I have, it’s like … the fire is a little less,” said McBride. “I think it has to do a lot with my bones hurting. And right now my hands are literally ice.”

A Long Beach resident since 2014, McBride has painted the pedestrian bridge at the entrance of the 710 Freeway on Seventh Street, art for the Long Beach Airport, residential areas and the massive mural at George Washington Middle School, among many other works.

His fondness for education has also driven him to complete numerous murals for schools in underserved communities around the Los Angeles Union School District and even made art tutorials online during the pandemic.

Now, McBride is currently awaiting approval for a stem cell transplant. Without it, he would have about three years to live. His doctor said that his odds of living are good if he is able to get the procedure and he’d be in a hospital bed for about six months before he could return to his work.

McBride has started a GoFundMe to help supplement his income before he is unable to work. He said his insurance will cover most of the medical bills which would come out to about $400,000, but he is working “every single second” to amass as much funds as he can from working before he can no longer use his hands.

“I’m not going to let you guys down, no matter what. If you’re donating, I’m going in there … in my A-game and I’m going to fight this,” said McBride.

Kenny McBride’s first mural in Long Beach, the pedestrian bridge at the entrance of the 710 Freeway next to Edison Elementary School in Long Beach on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo by Maison Tran.

His symptoms began in early 2023 when he started feeling fatigued from projects, losing motivation and purpose for his craft, which he said was unlike himself.

It was a sense of depression — something that he had never experienced before, even through a difficult childhood and a period of homelessness in his early 20s, said McBride. Even after nipping a drinking habit, his dispirited state persisted.

Following a visit to the dentist in May 2023, McBride bled profusely from his teeth while working on a school mural in Los Angeles, using his paint rags to contain the gushing, he said. The month after, a blood test found that his platelet count was unusually high.

A normal count would be around 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microliter of blood, but his was over 1.3 million, he said.

“They almost thought it was an error,” McBride said.

At first, a hematologist misdiagnosed him with essential thrombocytosis, but after McBride consulted the internet about his symptoms, he fought hard for a bone marrow biopsy. With some resistance, his doctor ran the test — and discovered myelofibrosis.

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Now, with peace of mind knowing the root of his exhaustion, McBride said the fire in him had been reignited. While he waits for chemotherapy, he is going all-in on his art; he’s working to expand his mural business McBride Arts with his wife, Anna McBride, and record an album with his band, Plasma Pool.

“He’s kind of got this ability to just keep going no matter what,” said Jack Mantych, vocalist for Plasma Pool and longtime friend of McBride’s. “He’s always been this obsessive artist, not getting held back by fear of what the future is going to be.”

Kenny McBride wanted to be in Guitar World Magazine when he picked up his first six-string at 13. As he grows weaker now, he has become more determined to pursue his art. He said he had plans to go on tour with his band, but now just hopes to play a show with them if he’s healthy enough.

During a recording session in January, he vomited in the bathroom between takes, without any of his other bandmates knowing.

But the hardest part, he said, is watching his loved ones see him fight this. He said that the weight he is putting on his wife “is a lot.”

“It sucks … but I’m strong. Kenny’s strong. And we feel very supported by the community,” Anna said. “Kenny powers through what would break most people.”

Kenny McBride plays guitar during a recording session for his band, Plasma Pool, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. Photo by Maison Tran.

Originally from Cypress, McBride was making art for as long as he could remember, painting and playing music at Orange County School of the Arts. Coming from a home with divorced parents and a rocky relationship with his mother, art was his outlet, he said.

Shortly after he graduated, he met Anna McBride, who attended the same high school and was a year behind him. The two quickly fell in love, he said, and committed to a long-distance relationship while Anna McBride went to the University of California, Merced for college.

After his first band broke up after high school, he slept in a music studio, in parks, at handball courts and under highways. Eventually, he made amends with his mom, dedicated his life to studying, teaching and working on art and reunited with Anna, he said.

McBride and Anna moved to Long Beach in 2014 for its art scene and friendly residents, where he embraced the community – and said the community embraced him back.

He rented out an art studio and storefront at the ArtExchange and met with business owners and politicians, including then-Mayor Robert Garcia and Sen. Lena Gonzalez.

Within weeks, he said he had his art up in offices and over the years has done some 200 live paintings with the community. He said he’d also wake up at 3 a.m. to work at Starbucks, then paint at his studio until dark.

His first mural in 2016 was of birds and dragonflies on the pedestrian bridge across the 710 entrance on Seventh Street, connecting a neighborhood across to Edison Elementary School. Eventually, Kenny McBride could afford to work on his craft full time.

He said he is also particularly proud of the piece at Washington Middle School called “Love Beyond Borders,” which depicts the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants through a destroyed wall. The McBrides both collaborated on this in 2019, and over 100 volunteers helped paint the piece.

“Without Long Beach, honestly, I wouldn’t have the success I have,” said McBride. “I’ve had a lot of champions. Like I take very little responsibility for a lot of my trajectory.”

Now, the artist is taking hydroxyurea, a chemotherapy medication, and navigating delays in scheduling a stem cell transplant, hoping that one of his brothers’ blood is a good enough match for him to use.

In early March he encountered another complication — his doctor found a rapidly growing tumor on his liver.

If it is benign, McBride may still have to get surgery, and recovery would delay the stem cell transplant even further. If it’s cancerous, then his doctors will do their best to “ease his way out,” he said.

Even as his health declines, McBride said he is in good spirits. As he takes on more mural clients at schools, he said thinking about how his interactive art can impact kids “makes the sickness go away” and “if I sit down, I feel 10 times worse than if I’m moving.”

“Then I just kind of slowly fizzle out, and that’s not my style,” said McBride. “I’m just keeping going until I can’t.”

Kenny McBride’s GoFundMe can be found here. More information on McBride Arts can be found here.

Kenny and Anna McBride stand next to their mural at George Washington Middle School in Long Beach on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Photo by Maison Tran.

Maison Tran is a fellow at the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected].