The sun was shining on a beautiful September morning, and everything I had ever known and loved was gone.
The Wednesday before the RVA Street Art Festival was to begin, I ventured down to the canal walk to see the foundation work take place for the new murals that were to come. I was nervous to do so. That space, which had often found me and my companions wandering at all hours in a collegiate haze, seemed at once perpetual and immovable. I first discovered the murals on the canal walk when I came to Richmond in 2016, and they’d been there since 2012, which to me might as well have been forever.
Going into this experience, I knew very little about the world of public street art. I had, of course, seen the murals that cover the walls of almost every street in Richmond, and enjoyed most of them. But it was very rare that I ever stopped to consider them as art, the way I’d often done in any number of galleries on First Friday in Jackson Ward. It’s not that public street art didn’t deserve the attention; rather that I myself was engulfed by the worship of gallery art, and viewed the murals in Richmond less as artistic creations than as aesthetic choices made by building owners to increase property values. The fault here is mine, though, and, like any person striving for self-betterment, I’m doing what I can to break down my preconceived notions and open myself to new thoughts.
I parked my car behind the flood wall, the local headquarters for three of the nation’s largest banks looming overhead. In the distance the echoing sounds of scissor-lifts beckoned me toward a scene that would be considered a sacrilege of the highest order if it were taking place in even the most humble art gallery. However, in the streets, this was just part of the cyclical nature of public art. Every mural I had ever known, from the tongue-in-cheek target littered with mannequins to Jeff Soto’s iconic owl, had either disappeared or were in the process of doing so. I could smell a fresh coat of primer mixed with the aroma of the stagnant water of the Kanawha Canal, but the loss of such prominent and beautiful artworks that had defined this Nationally Registered Historic Place was the shock that brought me to my knees. I slumped on the sidewalk to watch the beginnings of a new generation of city defining works, and attempted to compose myself before I spoke to these strange muralists.
I spent that first day soaking it all in, enjoying the calm before the actual festival got started that weekend. Despite the official start time being days in the future, it was awfully crowded, as the artists and assistants tried to get started before the space was crawling with looky-loos and amateur photographers attempting to Instagram the experience.
I ran into one of the event organizers, John Milles, who quickly introduced me to the original event organizer, now both organizer and artist, Ed Trask. Trask was working on a piece on the side wall where the target piece used to be. I noticed quickly that the primer used to cover up the old piece had not completely obscured it, and the outer ring of the target was still visible. When I asked Trask about this, he said he wanted to reference the artists of years past, and pay homage to the original event. Paying even closer attention, I noticed that the subject of his piece was the Manchester Bridge, which passes over the James River in place of, and now overshadowing, the remains of the older Ninth Street “Singing” Bridge. That subject stands as an echo of the nature of the piece itself; if viewed from just far enough away, through the fog of decades, one can almost see the very passage of time.
I made it my first goal to figure out what exactly constituted “street art,” as opposed to what I heard many of the artists referring to as “public art.” Calling themselves public artists were those like Auz Miles, the VCU trained painter and printmaker, who found her way into the trade honestly with pieces like her mural of the Brown Ballerinas for Change. Compare this against the equally successful Nils Westergard, who was surrounded by graffiti (or “graf”) artists when he began painting, went to school as a filmmaker with a background constructing stage sets, and has gone on to paint murals all over the world. Or Mickael Broth, who was briefly jailed for creating street art in Richmond and got out just in time to paint his first mural for the 2012 RVA Street Art Festival.
Eli McMullen, a VCU trained artist who usually specializes in studio work, is just beginning in public art, but had a different view of himself and the work he was doing at the festival. “It almost is funny that this is called the ‘Street Art Festival,’” said McMullen, “when it’s more of just – I think – a mural festival. Not all of us are known to just go and do it guerrilla, illegal style… which is what I would consider a true street artist.” When viewed through that lens, it can become difficult to see what exactly is street art, what is graffiti, and what is vandalism.
“In a way, especially in more urban areas, I feel like modern contemporary murals have stemmed from definitely graffiti, definitely street art – which I would consider illegal mural work in the public eye,” said McMullen.
Even Trask, a founder of this very “Street Art Festival,” was quick to denote the difference. “This is public art. This is public mural art,” said Trask. “I know graffiti people who have been doing it for 30-40 years, and they’re still doing graffiti. And to them, this ain’t street art. What they’ve been doing for years is street art.”
“Street art is a certain style; it’s referring to, specifically, the buttoning up of graffiti culture. Street art can be seen as the cleaning up of graffiti,” said full-time muralist Hamilton Glass.
Often conflated with vandalism, which is simply destruction of property, graffiti art is seen by its practitioners as something else entirely. Glass had delightful insight, saying, “When people say graffiti, they think of vandalism, which it is not. It’s two different things. I can go do street [art], or I can go do fine art on your car while you sleep at night, and it’s still vandalism, right? If you did that, somebody would probably go, ‘Oh, look at that graffiti,’ and that’s not [what graffiti is]. Graffiti is a style of art, it’s not a classification of it.”
The denoting of graffiti as a style and not simply any artistic vandalism, the act of which could be called “street art,” becomes even more clear when taking a look at the piece by artist Chr!s Visions. His piece, inspired by the mythology of the Candyman films, features the traditional stylized block lettering often featured in tags and graffiti art throughout the world. Despite that fact, Visions was trained at VCU, and was only inspired by the form — he has no background in street art. “I grew up in a country-bumpkin-like town, so graffiti art made me feel seen,” said Visions, “but it also made me feel like I was part of a city… I try to keep that with my traditional training.”
With graffiti and vandalism on my mind, it occurred to me, while looking around at the beautiful apartments and the nice restaurant right across the canal, that I didn’t see any street art besides the sanctioned pieces that were part of the festival. I couldn’t help but think of that ever-present evil seen in cities throughout the country: gentrification. To my untrained eye, the area reeked of it; expensive apartments, classy restaurants, white-collar workplaces, a bank building, all of it brand spanking new. I was introduced around this time to Jon Baliles, another of the event organizers, a former Richmond City Council member who ran for mayor in 2016. He seemed like the perfect person to discuss the subject with.
My fears were slightly assuaged as Baliles noted that, prior to the first festival, the neighborhood that we were in was almost entirely abandoned. He explained that many of the apartment buildings had been warehouses and abandoned tobacco storage facilities at the time. “It’s not gentrification because no one got driven out,” said Baliles. So it appears that our hallowed event was innocent of contributing to gentrification – who can get mad at people beautifying an abandoned industrial park? However, the question remains: how has the legacy of this space treated the artists?
It had occurred to me in speaking to all these artists and discussing the pieces that came before them that I didn’t know any of the previous artists prior to researching the 2012 event. Yet I had spent hours down at the murals, and had even taken family in from out of town to see them. They are famous landmarks in Richmond, and the artists receive none of the benefits of that. To the average citizen, their names remain unknown. I found Visions once again and asked him about this reality. “Pardon my French, it’s bullshit,” said Visions. “We see it in commercials for the city all the time now… [The artists] don’t get anything.”
Even if their work hasn’t hurt the surrounding community, the city of Richmond has found a way to co-opt these artists. What’s more, some of the participants in this very “street art” festival have been persecuted by the city in the past — for creating street art. The city uses their work to its advantage, but only when they create their art in the manner the city desires. Trask was aware of this, and there was sadness in his voice as he commented on Richmond seeing “the street artist becoming a commercially viable instrument.”
Visions noted that the old murals appeared in ads for the city, but it’s difficult to remember names and faces of the previous artists. As the smile faded from his face, he said, “Sadly, we have to get used to feeling neglected or forgotten, but used when people want [the city] to look prettier.”
The first day of the event started off slow, as the public got off work on a Friday afternoon and began trickling in to see something beautiful as it changed. I got myself a beer and sat around, part of an audience of hundreds watching the artists at their craft. “How stressful,” I thought. As a musician and writer, my creative process is never on display, and no product is presented to the wider public until after countless hours of laboring, obsessing, and polishing. What must it be like to have one’s thought process and raw creativity on display for anyone who just happens to saunter by?
“I’m just super appreciative that so many people would like to come by and see the process,” said McMullen. “The most interesting part of seeing art, for myself, is to see it in progress. Whether you understand the process or know how they would approach it as an artist, I think it’s just super interesting to see it happening… you can feel the energy; it’s palpable.”
Said Baliles on the subject, “What I tell people is to make sure not to only watch the art that’s being created, but to watch the people watching the art get created.” This seemed overly saccharine to me, but I decided to set aside my cynicism for a while and give it a try. Not long after my conversation with Baliles, a finely dressed older woman strode in and greeted me as I sat on the ground writing in my notebook. She had brought a chair from home and set up shop, getting comfortable to watch the artists work. Not long after that, I saw her speaking to Broth and Emily Herr, another artist at the festival. As I wandered, I saw skateboarders file through, plop down on their boards, and light up a joint to pass around while taking in the murals. In the waning hours of the evening, an older gentleman arrived with his guitar to serenade the audience. I fell victim to the sincerity; my misanthropy faded away as I saw a connection between those of different race, ages, and social classes.
The second day of the festival I arrived later in the afternoon, and found a packed crowd. I brought a couple of friends with me, and while I darted around speaking to everyone I’d met over the last couple days, my friends were perfectly content to sit in front of the murals and watch the artists paint for hours; captivated by the expert use of spray paint and the liberal use of scissor lifts.
Whispers in the crowd expressed shock and awe at the removal of iconic pieces that had been around for years. After all, they were all that many festival-goers remembered of the space, a view I’d shared until just a few days earlier. But the temporal range of the original murals was never guaranteed. “We didn’t think this was gonna be here for ten years. We were told maybe two years, tops,” said Trask. “The idea of putting on a street art festival and thinking it’s gonna be here forever is ridiculous.”
“I think it’s an opportunity for people to connect with this space a little bit deeper now,” said Glass. “Also, in remembering the ones that came before it — there are a lot of people who felt like their favorite pieces were down here, and I think, honestly, that’s what gives it its worth. People being able to reminisce about it, but also appreciate the new.” Quite simply, it was time to move on. “It was time for a change,” agreed Trask.
As my companions and I walked away from the strange and perpetual transience of a world I didn’t understand, yet desperately hoped to, we wandered down a dilapidated path next to the entrance to the canal walk. Down there we discovered, just out of sight, a pillar adorned with tags and colors. Against the falls and greenery of the river behind it, it was truly beautiful. This was street art, graffiti style, in its honest to god form; illicit, guerrilla, adding to the place while taking nothing away.
There are so many in the art world, be they oil painters, novelists, or musicians, who are obsessed with the idea of preservation, of monuments; the next great American novel, the album of the year, a new Mona Lisa. Public street artists have no illusions of grandeur. They are an unpretentious people, endlessly throwing themselves against any wall they can, without any hope that something might stick. As I sat on the other side of the canal, staring across the algae and mire at a building long beyond its time, I saw two temporary things prolonging each other — for the sake of beauty, and in spite of us all.