Kevin Lyons is up a ladder, hands black with charcoal, the result of hours spent painstakingly sketching an army of fuzzy-edged monsters on the eastern wall of the Trophy Brewing building on Morgan Street. A crowd watches him at work. A drone whizzes around them all. Lyons climbs down, stands back and determines where a smudge or two of black paint should go to give his monsters movement; they’re shouting and smiling, tongues out, staring, or eyes drawn, scheming. Speech bubbles float from wide-open mouths.
The New York City native’s illustrations have adorned skateboards and storefronts and sneakers, but, in Raleigh, these monsters have been fashioned into a mural with a message. “[Street art] provides a really amazing forum for both the artist and the community itself,” Lyons says. “It can do a lot of good in a community. It can say a lot of things. It can send messages that can remind the community of what to do.”
“It’s a way to have a conversation. It brings people together,” says Raleigh-based artist David Eichenberger, who assisted with the Lyons mural.
In the past couple of months, murals like this have popped up all over the city. There’s the seven-surface collection of M.C. Escher quotes that emerged in September (and will be removed at the end of January), a collaborative project between Eichenberger and the N.C. Museum of Art. There’s Sprinkles, Lisa Gaither’s luxuriating bobcat on the side of C. Grace, the jazz bar on Glenwood South. There are Dalek’s bright, crisscrossing lines on the wall of a building in the Ridgewood Shopping Center.
It’s become easier than ever for artists to bring color to Raleigh, thanks in no small part to a citizens collective that works to preserve, celebrate and promote existing and new public artwork.
“Our goal was starting a conversation around murals in general,” says JT Moore, a marketing director and photographer, who, with Jedidiah Gant, a media strategist and founder of the news website New Raleigh, started the Raleigh Murals Project a little over a year ago. “The way we look at it is, our job is to promote what’s going on, and whenever possible, make life easy for the artist.”
“We’re the middleman,” Gant adds, a liaison between artists and the owners of buildings and businesses, as well as the city of Raleigh. “It’s been really exciting. There have been lots of murals that we weren’t directly involved in. Our goal is to bring more. We’re not painters or artists in the traditional sense, but our job is to make sure the city has more murals coming about. We’ll gladly take credit for the conversation.”
It all started with a butterfly.
Moore and Gant started talking one day in early 2014 about the fading black-and-white butterfly perched atop a yellow blob of flower, a painting on the side of the Remedy Diner on East Hargett Street.
“Are there other ones like this, and why aren’t there, and what can we do to save the ones that are already here?” Moore wondered. “That led to, ‘Let’s have a conversation and see what happens,’ and then it just took off.”
Moore and Gant launched a website showcasing Raleigh murals last April. Since then, they’ve had a hand in bringing about several murals across town, including the Escher quotes and an ongoing project at Shaw University in which Chapel Hill-based artist Scott Nurkin painted campus underpasses to reflect the historically black institution’s history and future. And they’re just getting started: The Raleigh Mural Project has been involved in several murals that are launching this month and early next year, including Lyons’ mural at Trophy, a collaboration with the nonprofit Truth, whose goal is to keep teenagers from smoking.
“To me, [Lyons’ mural] is one of the most interesting stories we’ve had so far that involves cool clients and an interesting concept behind it,” Gant says. “It’s like people realize that Raleigh is now a destination for this. It’s encouraging that there is a connection from people here to people like this who can get things done.”
In conceptualizing the Raleigh Murals Project, Moore and Gant looked for inspiration to Richmond, Virginia, where an organization pays artists from all over the world to come paint the city’s surfaces and walls. Moore also points to Miami, where the colorful Wynwood Walls have transformed what was essentially a warehouse district. Philadelphia has a widely acclaimed mural arts program that emerged in the 1980s. New York City has always been a destination for graffiti artists. And European cities like Brussels, adorned all over with comic strip-style murals, and London have offered democratized spaces for artists for decades.
Raleigh, a traditionally conservative city with strict sign ordinances, has not. But as it’s grown, the need for more public art has become apparent. In 2009, the City Council passed an ordinance that reserves half of a percent of municipal funding for construction projects to go toward public art. In 2014, the council clarified rules for neighborhood art on public property. And in a speech last month, Mayor Nancy McFarlane emphasized the need for more art, saying that the arts “are an integral part of how we define ourselves.”
But for Raleigh to become a street-art destination, Gant and Moore realize that, along with curating strong local talent, the city will need to attract world-class artists, and that all these artists will eventually need to be paid. So Gant and Pam Blondin, owner of the gift shop Deco, recently founded Flight, a foundation that seeks to pay people who make public art. A pop-up store by the same name, selling locally made arts, crafts and jewelry, has emerged on East Martin Street; for as long as it’s open, 10 percent of its proceeds will go to Flight.
Another important piece of the puzzle, Gant and Moore say, will be building and maintaining a relationship with city officials.
“I think it’s the goal of 2016 to get the city of Raleigh involved,” Gant says. “I don’t know what that means. I like to set the expectation really low, but if it’s only two murals on two city-owned buildings, that would be amazing.”
Kim Curry-Evans, the city of Raleigh’s public arts coordinator, is on board. She’s been working on a long-term public arts plan that she says will give the city direction. One of the most important aspects of that process, Curry-Evans says, has been figuring out “how we can have art everywhere. And not art that’s so much pushed by the city, but art that’s pushed by everyone. The murals project is very cool because that’s a perfect example of that. Now it’s a question of how to use our leverage to do things on the different city properties that are sitting vacant but are potentially opportunities for public art.”
One such opportunity has already been seized: The Contemporary Art Museum is sponsoring a temporary mural that will go up on a city-owned building near the future Union Station. (That building will eventually be demolished.)
“The conversation is just going to get bigger and louder,” says Gant.
Underlying this emerging movement is the notion that public art has inherent value. It makes places more interesting and gives people new and different ways to enjoy their cities.
“People are encouraged and energized by art, and it gives them pride,” says Nurkin, the artist working on the Shaw murals. “When I paint something, people seem to be happy I did it. It adds to the identity of the place as not just another boring town, but there’s color on the walls and interesting things everywhere. It enlightens people.”
It’s not lost on the founders of the Raleigh Murals Project, as well Raleigh’s art community, that street art is often seen as toeing a fine line between actual art and vandalism. Philadelphia’s mural program, for example, came about in response to what the city termed a “graffiti crisis.” For artists, there’s the worry that their work could be spoiled with tags or drawings by others.
“[The word graffiti] carries a lot of baggage for some people, and that’s the challenge,” says Moore. “There is some tension and aggression involved in that culture. It’s meant to be another thing that comes up, and a next one and a next one.”
A month ago, local artists went to work on another wall on the Trophy building. The result was a colorful, haphazard mashup of text and illustrationgraffiti at its best, thoughtful, artful and interesting. But the wall has since been vandalized with tags and crude spray-painted drawings.
“That’s unfortunate,” says Gant. “If an artist comes in from out of town, they see if this one has been tagged, will theirs? Will this community respect me if they didn’t respect another?” But he notes that none of the city’s murals have been tagged or otherwise defaced, the result of an unspoken code of etiquette.
“There are very naïve generalizations made around graffiti art and street art in general,” says Lyons. “In cities that haven’t really embraced it, it gets a bad rap. It seems like Raleigh is at the beginning stages of what will be really funto watch how this develops and how it grows over the next couple years.”
Eichenberger says that while public art makes cities interesting and vibrant, there’s also the basic human need that it fulfillsthat is, the desire to connect.
“Once people see that they can do this, that it’s acceptable, they want art everywhere,” he says. “People follow the murals on Instagram, they see there’s a new one, they want to go check it out at Yellow Dog Bakery and then they stop in at the bike shop. It makes people a little bit more active in their community. It makes people happy.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Paint this town!”