It's hard not to notice over the past six years that murals are a thing in Richmond.
Thanks to large-scale efforts such as the Richmond Mural Project and the RVA Street Art Festival, the city has become a player on the national mural scene as many of our neighborhood walls have filled with colorful, often surreal art. For a stranger, it can seem like there's a hidden gem around every corner, and now there are even startup businesses conducting mural tours of the city.
A year ago, muralist and recent Style Top 40 under 40 winner Mickael Broth saw someone asking online if there was a book documenting Richmond's mural scene. Realizing there was not, "a light bulb went off," he says. Broth understood that these painted murals will not last forever, many only a decade or so, so he wanted a proper snapshot of this period that has, by and large, been embraced by the community.
"It was a lot of work, but it felt really important to me to document the murals the way they're supposed to be shown [outside of in-person]," Broth says. "It's sad to me that most of this work is seen over a phone, usually. Also the book offers a nice picture of the city without being booster-ism or, you know, over-the-top cheesiness."
- Scott Elmquist
- Muralist Mickael Broth and his publisher, Ward Tefft of Chop Suey Books, joined forces to put out the definitive document on Richmond’s mural boom, which began around 2012. The book “Murals of Richmond” will be available on Nov. 18.
Flash forward a year and Broth's coffee table book, "Murals of Richmond," is ready to drop via the publishing arm of Chop Suey Books in Carytown. Filled with eye-popping images of murals alongside interviews Broth conducted with many of the artists, the book is likely to be a hot gift item this holiday season at a reasonable $25 a pop.
Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, says the first printing will be around 3,000 books, but only 1,500 will immediately be available. Organizers are holding a launch party on Sunday, Nov. 18, at ZZQ in Scott's Addition. Later, books will be sold not only at Chop Suey and its online site, but at the Valentine and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, which is currently showing its own mural exhibit, "Fresh Paint," inspired by the story of Virginia.
Tefft says one of the main reasons he wanted to work with Broth was his focus on inclusivity. "He makes sure to include everybody, not just who Mickael thinks is cool," he says. "He even tried to find older photos from the '70s and '80s, but it was hard. You kind of wish someone had done a book like this back then. Ten years from now, if we have 20 percent of these murals in our city, I'd be surprised."
Among the photographers whose work is featured are Marc Schmidt, Rich Young, Emily Frock, Benjah White, Eli Christman and Solomon Rosedale (that's Broth). Many of the higher profile artists are from out of town including: Pixel Poncho, Zeh Palito, who did work along the Diamond's outer rim with local artist Andre Shank, and James Bullough, known for his "slicing" of mural images into strips.
Conducting the artist interviews for the book was time-consuming, Broth says, but offered some eye-opening moments.
"There was a lot of work that I didn't like going in," he recalls. "But after talking to the artists and getting their thoughts, my opinion changed."
The mural boom started around 2012 and since then, hundreds of murals have gone up across the city. Three hundred are featured in this book and that's not all of them by a long shot, Broth points out, especially if you include interior walls.
Today there are roughly 15 local muralists who work regularly, including Broth, Ed Trask, Emily Herr and Hamilton Glass, with around five of them making a living at it, according to Broth.
Trask, often considered a godfather of the local mural scene due to his early involvement, wrote the book's foreword.
"This is definitely an important record of a creative renaissance in Richmond," Trask says. "The murals kind of hit when the suburbs started coming back to the city, and all the breweries. I really think the murals sort of reflect that."
That's not to say there haven't been questions along the way.
- photo courtesy “Murals of Richmond”
- Artist: James Bullough; Location: Broad and Lombardy; The artist notes in the book interview that he tries to avoid answering questions about what his art means. “I feel that the point of public art is to create something that gets people to think themselves and come up with their own ideas of what the art is or says to them. Some of my favorite moments, when I am painting murals, are listening to people on the street watching me paint and discussing their different thoughts about the work.”
Longtime journalist Mark Holmberg — who notes he is a fan of murals for the most part — raised questions two years ago in an opinion piece for The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He wondered whether this kind of public art appealed to a broad enough swath of the city or was community-centered enough, also whether one artist and building owner should have the power to change the vibe of a block or neighborhood "when everything else has to go through a permitting process."
"How can one guy out of D.C. [Shane Pomajambo of RVA Mural Project] with a for-profit business change the face of Richmond with oh-so hip and trendy murals from distant (and yes, amazing) artists that rarely have anything to do with our community?" Holmberg wrote in July 2016.
Guidelines for mural art have come up in other cities, but in Richmond that hasn't happened, partly because many have been on privately owned buildings.
"Do you really think an art council or board should have curatative ability to dictate what is good enough to be public art or culturally affect the fabric of architecture? I don't think it should," Trask says. "If the community wants to say 'No, enough is enough,' you talk to the building owners and say 'We'd rather you didn't.'"
Broth notes that he doesn't get to decide what goes on corporate billboards that pepper the city roadways and that the creative visual aesthetic of murals is a kind of counterbalance to typical corporate expression and advertising, which is always based around selling us something.
"If you're able to find a property owner to have your artwork on their building, it's a different thing from public space," Broth says, adding that it's a common misconception that the city supported this work. "The city has done virtually nothing to support almost 90 percent of the work in this book. This is all private individuals and corporations who have been financially supportive. To the city's credit, they stood out of the way and said, 'This is an organic, grass-roots arts movement and the vast majority of people are responding positively.'"
- photo courtesy “Murals of Richmond”
- Artist: Barry O’Keefe (from Richmond); Location: Southern States Silos; Broth: “This is my favorite mural in the city. Madison Washington was a slave who escaped, came back to rescue his wife and kids, got recaptured, got put on a boat called the Creole that was anchored over by Ancarrow’s [Landing]. They had an uprising and 168 slaves sailed this ship to Bermuda and the British refused to turn them over. I’ve been told this was the biggest slave escape in American history. Barry had grown up here and was shocked he had never heard of this. [O’Keefe] did the piece like it was a famous novel of the time period.”
The question is whether moving forward, the city plans to support local artists creating public art, one of the drivers of Richmond's cultural brand. City Council only recently pledged to restore $264,000 of the $2.15 million it snatched from the city's public art fund in April to balance amendments in Mayor Levar Stoney's capital budget.
With the city's public art master plan approved there's a good chance this could mean more funding for public art projects by local artists. It's a stated priority in the plan. This will partly be the job of the city's new public art coordinator when that position is filled. Sarah Cunningham, chairwoman of Richmond's Public Art Commission, says the interview process is still underway.
"This city is in a moment where we can embrace the possibilities for public art by creating a conversation about it and investing in a more diverse public-art portfolio," Cunningham says. "Chicago, Philly, and Los Angeles have long, foundational histories of mural practice as social resistance and claiming of public space for oppressed citizens."
Her commission, which deals only with funds from city development and city property, has voted to support mural works numerous times, including the Unity Street Project of muralist Hamilton Glass, an artist whose work often deals with social-justice issues, and who also recently was named a Style Top 40 Under 40 winner.
Just this week, Glass is working on walls in Scott's Addition at Perch and in Church Hill at Soul n' Vinegar and Blue Sky Fun in support of the Giving Wall project, a website launching Dec.1 that hopes to connect the "uncommon and urgent needs" of people living beneath the poverty line with people who want to help. It's a partnership between the Office of Community Wealth Building and Mindful Mornings.
"Just another great example of how art can help represent and bring awareness and access to all," Glass says of the project.
Though murals are not a big part of the public art master plan, Cunningham says there are long-term recommendations — within five years — to have murals on city property be approved by the Public Art Commission and the Commission of Architectural Review. Murals recently have "transformed from an essential expression of political identity and a claiming of public space, to becoming an indirect contributor to arts tourism," she says.
Scott Garka, president of CultureWorks, cites a study in partnership with Americans for the Arts that showed a $360.1 million economic regional impact for the arts based on 83 arts organizations, There are now over 200 nonprofit arts and culture organizations, he points out. "The study did not measure the impact of the murals, but there certainly is an economic impact incremental to the $360.1 million already measured as the murals draw visitors to the region," he tells Style. "They are an important part of the fabric of our city, even becoming part of the city's brand."
- photo courtesy “Murals of Richmond”
- Artist: Esteban del Valle (from New York); Location: Southern States Silos; In the book’s interview, muralist Esteban del Valle says that he was thinking about the location’s history in relationship to the slave trade. “I chose to construct a fictional narrative where two slaves have managed to free themselves and have taken over their captor’s ship. The red flag depicted is a reference to the red flags historically used to announce slave sales in progress … The masks were used as a way to re-imagine these figures as their own variation of an epic Greek myth.”Broth notes that del Valle returned last year for the RVA Street Art Festival, painting young Puerto Rican baseball players over at the Diamond. “Esteban is just a really interesting guy,” Broth says. “His dad is a labor organizer who ran for mayor in Chicago against Rahm Emanuel. Lots of his work has political undertones, but at the same time they look cool.”
But when something becomes a part of a city's brand, does that mean it's dead as an honest, underground art form? Or is it up to artists and communities to keep it alive?
"I think it's important to tell a story of Richmond's scene that connects to the national history of murals (think Works Progress Administration)," Cunningham says by email, adding that the master plan was completely community driven. "The public art plan actually insures that the commission is a legitimate legislative body. This sounds boring, but … this is the most important step to secure the wellbeing of public arts in Richmond, and to even have a foundation to work with artists, local or otherwise."
Her commission gets to draw 1 percent from capital-improvement funds related to new construction worth more than $250,000, and it must be used in specific ways.
"This doesn't allow us to fund public programs, educational opportunities or temporary art," Cunningham explains, adding that the language of the new ordinance provides two new mechanisms: First, it will establish an account for funds that are not linked to improvement money, possibly incoming grants or matching funds. Second, it supports a broader array of activities for such funds, including money raised through grant writing, to be used for "temporary works, which may include sound, video, and other media as well as potential public programs or educational projects."
For Broth, murals changed his life for the better,he says.
Back in 2004, he had to graduate late from Virginia Commonwealth University after being arrested for graffiti he did along Interstate 95 – he used to employ the tag "refuse"in his early work. He wound up sentenced to 10 months in jail for felony vandalism.
Over the past decade, after working as an assistant to Ed Trask, he quickly became a prolific and in-demand muralist who is able to make a living creating art. Just last year, he was awarded a $50,000 commission from the city for an upcoming sculpture outside the Hull Street Branch of the Richmond Public Library.
Broth is also a board member of the RVA Street Art Festival, an annual event that picks an area of the city to cover with murals while opening the art-making process up to the public. He says they will be announcing their 2019 location in January. Trask, who started the festival with Jon Baliles, characterizes it as a grassroots movement. He points to cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia where murals originally were seen as graffiti abatement, a creative outlet for young artists to keep them from illegally painting buildings.
"What I love about Philly is that it merged into a bigger thing, community gardens. And it balanced local and international talent, as well as giving life to a cultural community," Trask says, noting that Philly murals often tell stories about the identity of the community. "I kind of think Richmond needs more of that, but murals and street art are changing, becoming one. The old-school part of me wants to see murals tell more of a story about identity, the other part of me wants to see people find it themselves, and let the community in general dictate whether it's valid."
- photo courtesy “Murals of Richmond”
- Artist: Emily Herr (from Richmond); Location: Shepard Street; Ward Tefft says he didn’t originally know what the message was behind Richmond muralist Emily Herr’s work. But he learned from the interview in the book that she is out there organizing female artists in the boy’s club world of muralists, using a mobile studio. “I have total respect and admiration for [her work] especially when I saw how she outfitted her van, did a multistate mural tour,” he explains. “A lot of her mission is to do this in support of other female artists. It’s very inspiring. Every time I drive by her murals now around town, I’m totally stoked on them.”
Trask hopes the book will inspire new generations of makers to create public art, be it murals or light and sound installations or sculpture. "That's what is really exciting about this," he says about the "Murals of Richmond" book, wondering what the next popular movement will become.
"I think being a mural city is too narrow for us," Cunningham says. "We are much more of an arts city — with VMFA, ICA, galleries, 1708, Art 180. We are a rich combination of art forms, artists and art participants. We should include everyone in a conversation about the future."
Murals, in a way, are a form of living history perfectly suited to a period when societal norms are in constant flux. Unlike the controversial Monument Avenue statues, these murals fade on their own — within 10 to 20 years, Broth says.
"So if you don't like some of them," he says. "They're gonna be gone one day." S
A book release party for "Murals of Richmond" will be held on Sunday, Nov. 18, at ZZQ from 2 to 5 p.m.
- photo courtesy “Murals of Richmond”
- Artist: Evoca; Location: Clay and Gilmer; The artist notes in his interview with Broth that while he got a lot of positive feedback while in Richmond, he later heard some people "weren't so happy about having a Union soldier in a Confederate city." He adds that he was intrigued by the role drummer boys played in the Civil War, relaying orders or looking for the wounded.