Murals revitalize neighborhoods with nothing but a little spray paint and imagination. Here are some of the city's most recent murals--make time to look one up this spring.
Walking around the District, it’s hard to miss the painted walls that dot the city and color each ward. Through its MuralsDC project, the District aims to revitalize neighborhoods, deter illegal graffiti, and boost local businesses—often while inspiring civic pride and imagination. D.C. currently has around 50 commissioned mural projects across the city. (The total number of murals around town is larger, but there is no official count that includes those that are privately commissioned.) In 2013, six new pieces went up next to establishments ranging from a school to a sandwich shop to a liquor store.
Elevation DC has put together a guide to the newest murals around town. Read on to see where public art, by aerosol artists based from here to Berlin, is making an impact.
“Education is a Powerful Weapon” – 312 Florida Avenue NW
“There’s a lot of brick [around DC] and we can do things to beautify that. It’s definitely a blessing to have free-of-charge artwork on your wall,” says Nzinga Damali Cathie, the pastry chef at the family-owned Kuumba Kollectibles at 312 Florida Avenue NW. The art gallery, gift store, and sweets shop is home to one of D.C.’s most eye-catching murals and is where we begin our tour of the murals installed in 2013. Mural locations are solicited from business owners in places that have been affected by illegal graffiti, offering a means of revitalization. MuralsDC is sponsored by the Department of Public Works (DPW) and conducted in partnership with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and with the non-profit Words Beats & Life (WBL).
“Reloaded” is by one of D.C.’s most active mural artists, Aniekan Udofia, and shows a curvy woman pointing a sharp pencil from her hips that seems to jump out of the wall in 3D. Udofia has several murals around town, including a portrait of Marvin Gaye surrounded by streams of color at the corner of S and 7th
street NW, a brightly striped mural featuring President Barack Obama and Bill Cosby on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW, and a black and white portrait of a gagged George Washington a little further up U Street above a nail salon.
Damali Cathie says that DPW supported the choice of mural but were cautious about the implication of a weapon. Damali Cathie’s parents lobbied for the painting's design and it has since become a landmark, and received only positive feedback from visitors to the store. “We want people to focus on the true meaning of the weapon, the pencil, which is knowledge and literacy,” says Damali Cathie. “[It’s] not a weapon that destroys at all, but more of a tool for building.”
“Shhh” – 8 Florida Avenue NW
A few blocks down the street, at 8 Florida Avenue NW, find “Shhh” by James Bullough and Addison Karl, also known as the collective JBAK. Bullough grew up in D.C., inspired by graffiti and painting on anything he could find. In “Shhh,” three playful and lifelike giants mischievously crouch behind a wall. The models for the painting are WBL students from the neighborhood who also collaborated on its design. The mural project also aims to teach young people the art of spray painting beyond graffiti tagging by providing supplies and pairing youth with artists they admire.
“Support Our Troops” – 1513 Rhode Island Avenue NE
“Support Our Troops” at 1513 Rhode Island Avenue NE shows faces of American soldiers in black and white on a background of red, white, and blue. This piece wraps around Good Ole Reliable Liquors. Store manager Mike Toor said that honoring service members was important to the family business since he has cousins serving in the military. Toor says military veterans will sometimes stop in on their way from the local Veterans Affairs office. “We wanted to do something that was for the troops,” says Toor. “They … tell us that they really admire the work.”
Untitled – 1101 Bladensburg Road NE
The mysterious mural at 1101 Bladensburg Road NE by Baltimore-based muralist Michael Owen has been a conversation starter, according to Gwendolyn Rucker, the owner of Mother Rucker's Subs and commissioner of the mural.
Rucker says the ephemeral patterns and fish scales painted over a man’s face and torso attract customers who might be looking for something different in the neighborhood. “A lot of people want to come in and talk to you about [the mural] and that’s cool,” says Rucker.
The piece has a dark, almost mythical, intensity and, of the murals along the tour, was perhaps the most abstract or open to interpretation. “It gave the building some character,” said Rucker. “We didn’t want to do anything that was too culturally defined.” An employee at Mother Rucker’s said it reminded him of freedom because the man’s arms are extended like a bird.
“As for the visual art forms, murals probably bring art to the largest audience,” says Owen, who studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and started painting on walls because he was searching for larger canvasses that he could afford. “Murals touch and inspire people [who] have never or might never walk into a gallery.”
“The Birth of Our Dreams” – 1375 Missouri Avenue, NW
“The Birth of Our Dreams” tells a bit of D.C.’s diverse music history. Located at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School at 1375 Missouri Ave NW, the mural honors Maria Rodriguez, born Jean Butler, who was a renowned jazz musician and teacher influential in the D.C. Latin salsa scene. By Argentinian-born sculptor and painter Cecilia Lueza, the painting encircles an area near the playground with dreamlike images reminiscent of play and exploration.
“I wanted to present a colorful scene that is suspended from the natural order of time, and evokes a dreamscape, a precise moment occurring in the imagination,” says Lueza. “I hope the children see in the mural a reminder of a bright and promising future where dreams can become reality and where working with passion and motivation can inspire many others to follow their dreams.“
Three more DCMurals commissions are slated to go up in 2014. There is also a call out for donations of new spaces and the project is also looking for artists. If you are curious about checking out some of the murals, WBL is working on organizing some bicycle tours for the spring, summer, and fall. The first one is Sunday. Check out the MuralsDC website for updates and information.