Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Graffiti Guru

Artist Silly Genius has finally broken into the gallery scene and now he wants to bring others with him.


Taron Sparks is not your typical artist. Lacking a college degree or a long list of gallery shows under his belt, the graffiti artist better known as Silly Genius has spent nearly two decades fighting to get his foot in the door of the Richmond art scene.

Sparks’ upcoming exhibition at Art 180, “Storm the Gates,” is both an arrival into the mainstream as well as a middle finger to the establishment.

After the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University denied him, he says, he vowed to become an artist in Richmond. In 2004, Sparks left a tobacco town on the North Carolina border that he called home and headed north to crash on a friend’s couch in Virginia’s capital. “I packed up everything I had and moved to Richmond,” he says. “It was hard at first. I was working two to three jobs and doing anything to make sure I didn’t have to move back.”

While working in Regency Square and Cloverleaf Mall [Stonebridge Shopping Center], Sparks’ job at a streetwear shop surprisingly became his ‘in’ to the city art scene. Musicians and other artists would swing through to buy sneakers and clothes, sharing with Sparks’ where the latest local exhibitions were.

“I just kind of fell into the scene by going to art shows,” he says. “I was making art, but I didn't know anybody since I was so new to the city.”

Mural at Broad Rock. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mural at Broad Rock.

If you know, you know

Given the vibrancy of his colors and the sharpness of his lines, viewers may be surprised to learn that Sparks is completely self-taught.

Although he dabbles in illustration, painting, graphic design, and making merchandise, Silly Genius is best known for eye-catching, reference-laden murals. What may appear as standard street art can quickly be clocked as a Silly Genius signature once one knows what to look for.

“My art is a Venn diagram of graffiti aesthetics, anime, manga, comic books, a bit of graphic design, and a lot of nerdy, pop culture references that might not even matter to the larger public but are just ‘if you know, you know’ kind of things,” Sparks explains. “My art is the result of all those influences in one pot.”

Growing familiarity with his work has earned him commissions all over town, including the parking lot of Plaza Art, an abandoned train overpass in Swansboro, the Broad Rock Community Garden, and John B. Cary Elementary School. And while Richmonders have embraced him for years, he says that acceptance from the city’s art establishment hasn’t always been forthcoming.

That’s why in 2017, Sparks teamed with muralist Austin Miles, pen-and-ink artist Nadd Harvin, comic book illustrator Chris Visions, and tagger Prentice Carroll to form All City Art Club, a collaborative arts collective focused on "introducing street art to underserved communities without the goal of tourism or gentrification," as its website states.

“All City Arts Club was supposed to be a platform for all the artists who struggle to break into that curated gallery world,” explains Sparks. “I’ve been in Richmond for 18 years and I just had my first solo show last summer. Graffiti is the most popular art form, but how often do you see people from that world of art in the galleries? Richmond uses murals to sell itself, yet those artists rarely ever have any presence at shows.”

Hoping to launch a cultural course correction in the city, All City Art Club will be taking over Art 180 on the evening of Friday, Feb. 3 for its first ever gallery show, “Storm the Gates.” With a host of under-appreciated artists, live music and a food truck, the event should be “an interesting collection of work from super talented artists that most people don’t know exist because they have yet to break the surface of what people think about when they say ‘art in richmond,’” according to Sparks.

Seeking permanent site

Besides a potential project in the works with the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU and Reclaiming the Monument, Sparks’ top goal for 2023 is to find a building for All City Art Club to have studio and gallery space of its own. But with downtown Richmond real estate still a hot commodity, the search for a permanent site is proving difficult.

“The second a building goes on the market it gets snatched up and then nothing happens for years at a time,” says Sparks, adding “there’s a million and one empty storefronts on Broad Street, but the realty companies don’t want us in their buildings – even for a temporary 2-to-3-month installation.”

For a city that markets itself partly by touting its murals and artistic creativity, Sparks doesn’t feel like his community is getting the support it deserves. From the former Richmond Mural Project [which commissioned many out-of-town artists] to the Richmond Public Arts Commission (PAC), too often funding isn’t going to the homegrown artists who need it the most, according to Sparks.

“The first thing you see in the Richmond Real ads are the murals that the city refuses to give us funding for,” he says.

  • Scott Elmquist
  • Hull Street.

Reached for comment, Susan Glasser, secretary of the Public Art Commission, responded that Silly Genius’ assertion that the city does not typically fund the creation of murals around town is correct, but also misleading.

“The vast majority of murals around the city are neither city-funded nor city-reviewed because they are on private property and, therefore, are at the discretion of the property owner who independently selects an artist to design and paint each mural,” she wrote in an email to Style Weekly. “The PAC, on the other hand, can only install art on public property and uses a competitive process to select the artist. All our requests for proposals start with an open call to artists and selections are made in a competitive process by a seven-member artist selection panel made up of community and agency representatives, area artists and the relevant City Council liaison.”

Glasser added that local artists who would like to be added to the PAC mailing list which is used to announce new calls-for-artists would be “welcome and appreciated” and can contact her at

According to PAC “projects in process” notes from last year: Nine artists were awarded commissions, two were first-time public art artists, three were artists of color, and five were from the Richmond region. Sparks (Silly Genius) was chosen to receive a $30,000 budget for including a community-relevant mural, among other elements, at Broad Rock Community Garden. That project is anticipated to be completed this Spring.

Still, Sparks believes the city needs to do more.

“You have all these artists who live here trying to do cool things, but they can’t get access to funding or property," he says. "Support the arts, that’s all I can say.”

The exhibition, “Storm the Gates,” takes place at Art 180 on Friday, Feb. 3 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Note: Additional reporting was done on this story by Style Weekly.