Two astronauts kiss on 9 West Grace Street. A young woman sits in a jar of strawberries on 1011 West Grace Street. A flock of bees riding bicycles marches their way down Cary Street. An owl keeps watch over the James River and Kanawha Canal. The stories, images, and messages that cover many of the old brick and concrete buildings in Richmond, Virginia reflect the creativity and ingenuity that thrive in the growing Southern town and breathe charisma into the otherwise humble streets. The public artwork that has sprouted in the city of Richmond has provided opportunities for a wide variety of artists to showcase their work and garnered attention on an international scale.
Jacob Eveland sits at his drafting table, positioned in the corner of a small room, the walls of which are covered in framed artwork that he created, posters, and Star Wars action figures. This is where Eveland, a fine artist and muralist in Richmond, creates his work. He has contributed to the street art in the city, first garnering attention for his murals in his hometown of Lebanon, Illinois, and recently worked on a mural on the side of Highpoint Gallery on West Broad Street. Reflecting on how he got started in the business, he says, “I’ve done murals back in Saint Louis for fun… Just painting stuff like my mom’s backyard fences.” After graduating from VCU with a communication arts major, he says, “I had a mural in Illinois for a client, and then, just right around that time – it was 2013 – the Street Art Festival was like ‘Hey, we’ve got an open spot, do you want to hit up a wall?’ and I was like ‘Alright, let’s do this.’” The Richmond Street Art Festival is an annual event that brings together local and national artists to paint murals at a specific location. At the 2013 Street Art Festival, which took place at the GRTC bus depot on Cary Street, Eveland took the opportunity to showcase his black-and-white art style, combining elements of nature and antiques in illustrations rendered with crisp line quality and high contrast. “After that, it kind of just kicked off, it was just word of mouth.” Eveland is just one of many artists finding success thanks to Richmond’s street art. In fact, he acknowledges that making connections other artists is a crucial element to one’s success, citing Mickael Broth as valuable resource in getting work within Richmond.
Broth has been painting the city’s walls before paid mural work became popular in Richmond. His illegal graffiti infamously graced a fifty foot long stretch of a CSX railroad bridge in Hanover County in 2004. Today, Broth is a driving force behind Richmond’s growing street art scene, doing commissioned murals such as the one at the pizza restaurant Mellow Mushroom in Carytown. Along with Broth, a wide network of local artists includes Matt Lively, Hamilton Glass, Ed Trask, and a host of young artists (including many VCU graduates) such as Eveland. Happy to make their mark on the city and advertise their work, artists jump at the opportunity for murals, as it will lead to future success.. Matt Lively, whose trademark “Beecycle” murals have become a recognizable image around Richmond, echoes this sentiment, saying he “noticed an immediate bump in my website activity from day one… I expanded my audience many times over with the first mural, which led to additional murals and so on.”
While artists benefit from and enjoy mural work, street art also gives the city an image of creativity that brings in artists from all of the world. The Richmond Street Art Festival invites both local and national artists to paint a chosen location. Another initiative taken by the city is the Richmond Mural Project, which brings world-renowned muralists to Richmond in an effort to elevate Richmond to the number one destination for street art in the country. Started in 2012 by Art Whino, an art gallery in Maryland, the project aims to reach its 100th mural by 2016. It has received international acclaim, as a piece by Etam Cru that can be seen on West Grace Street appeared in Buzzfeed’s list of “Best Street Art In The World”.
For many, the Richmond Mural Project has been a great success. It has been accomplishing its goal of giving the city exposure as an epicenter of art and boosting tourism, and, according Eveland, “it makes more possibilities for good muralists – due to the rise in popularity of public art. It is, however, a ‘give-and-take,’” as Eveland concedes. “I’ve noticed older artists are like… ‘Oh, my walls are being taken… crap.’”
The feeling of animosity towards outsiders that some local artists have expressed is one of the few conflicts that lingers within the Richmond street art movement. For all the good that public murals and artwork have done for the city, they have also been the source of some controversy both amongst the artists and for the Richmonders who view the art.
With so many professionally done murals popping up throughout the city, it encourages graffiti artists to vandalize public spaces, sometimes targeting pre-existing artwork. Eveland weighs in on the issue, saying “That’s just a disrespect thing in the art community. Graffiti has a lot of rules. Don’t tag something or throw something up unless you can do something better quality. And if you can, then you start a battle.” Lively has a slightly different take on the issue, acknowledging that “For the most part, graffiti kids are pretty respectful of others’ art. Once in a while a mural will get tagged, but it’s actually kind of fun to go and fix it. I actually had the opportunity to make one better as a result of graffiti repair. I thought of it like a collaboration.”
Further controversy has arisen from those who feel that the art is offensive, such as the local business owner that anonymously contacted NBC12 about Taylor White’s mural depicting a nude woman. In NBC12’s report, they quote the business owner as saying “City mural projects are out of control… Carytown’s latest pornographic mural is posted next to the front door to my office. Decapitated woman spread eagle painted to side of building. 15 South Belmont Avenue on the side of the Design Center of Richmond. City has nothing in place to regulate these murals. Families and children frequent area.”
The exposure for the city and its artists and the beauty that they provide are benefits that far outweigh the conflicts that Richmond’s flourishing street art culture may cause. If you want to admire the hard work of our local and international artists, you don’t have to go far. Take a drive down Cary Street. Go for a stroll on the Canal Walk. The walls are telling us stories and teaching Richmond to be a more thoughtful and art-conscience community. They’re offering the people of Richmond a free, unbiased look at art, a look that Matt Lively argues can be found in few other places. “In a gallery they may feel intimidated by the establishment or the price and think they are missing something. In public, they can see what they want.”