Perched fifty feet above Broad Street overlooking an otherwise nondescript building, DC-born artist James Bullough shakes a can of flesh-tone spray paint. Its inner apparatus rattles with a satisfying pitter-patter as he spreads the dappled pigment across the long beige wall in front of him. Hoisted by a bright green and white industrial lift, he towers above the traffic on the pavement below. Bike-riders and sidewalk-meanderers crane their necks towards the monstrous contraption as it rumbles into just the right position for James to highlight the edge of a giant nostril. With a foot-long streak of white, a woman’s face begins to take form. It’s a small part of the figurative piece that James is on track to complete over the next fourteen days as one of a dozen muralists participating in the wall-painting frenzy that is the 2015 Richmond Mural Project.
Now in its fourth year, this annual event has attracted scores of painters and street artists from around the world, unleashing them upon the city to enliven blank walls wherever they can be secured. The result of their efforts has produced a growing collection of murals, making Virginia’s capital a destination for graffiti art appreciators far and wide.
Shane Pomajambo, owner of Art Whino gallery, a contemporary art space based in DC, is the curator and organizer of the Richmond Mural Project as well as one of its inaugural leaders. He spoke to me over the phone, disclosing the event’s origin story. The original idea began as an offshoot of the third G40 Art Summit, an annual large-scale contemporary art exhibition staged by Art Whino. The theme in 2012 was “The Art of the Mural.” Finding blank walls to paint in DC proved difficult for Shane, but luckily, Richmond had them in spades, so the summit moved south.
While talking with building owners about using their walls for murals, Shane discovered a common problem they shared. In most of the areas he was targeting, there was also a serious lack of foot traffic. Shane recounted, “They’d tell me a little bit about themselves and the story was pretty much consistent: they loved Richmond, but if they could make any changes, they just wished there was more feet on the street, more business.” Economic development has been a goal of the project from the beginning, so hearing this made their decision to relocate to Richmond all the more relevant. “The original Richmond Mural Project came out of a desire to create an economic boost in the city.”
With this year’s project, Shane hopes to highlight Richmond’s talent. His crew of painters hails from New York, Florida, London, Berlin, and Japan, but for the first time, a local artist will be taking part. Nils Westergard, a VCUarts graduate, got his start with a spray can as a kid tagging buildings around his hometown of Falls Church. “Graffiti and public art have always been my motivation,” he tells me, “I started painting to paint graffiti.” Because of stricter vandalism laws in the US, Nils does a majority of his mural work abroad, painting in festivals and working on commissions. But as he points out, it’s difficult to become a good muralist without the rote experience that tagging provides. “You have to practice a thousand times on a wall to get any good at painting it. With few exceptions, you don’t really go from fine art and then jump into murals.”
Not that Nils is opposed to studio work, he just prefers to paint on a larger scale whenever possible. “If someone says ‘do a wall or do a painting,’ I’m doing a wall every time,” he says. “I spend hundreds of hours on studio paintings, but I can do a wall in a day. It’s fun and it’s a more powerful piece for me when I’m done. I have an immediate effect on my environment.” Nils looks down at his phone and elaborates, “It’s twelve-thirty on a Thursday night in Australia and people are drinking right now. I guarantee you they’re walking by a painting I did of my friend because it’s outside of a bar. Someone is either pissing on it or saying, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” He shrugs and squints slightly, “That interaction’s never going to happen with a painting.”
Back on the lift above Broad Street, the fleshy details of a woman’s cheeks are still taking shape. The spectators below squint their eyes at the contour of her jawline. James nods at the crowd beneath his platform and echos Nils’ sentiment, “Painting in a public space is fun because you get to interact with people and you get to see how people’s views on what you’re doing change.” He continues, “Just today, how many people do you think have glanced at this wall? Five thousand, ten thousand people driving by, walking out of the gas station? Now multiply that by the next six hours that I’m out here, and multiply that by the seven days that I’m here, and then the rest of eternity that this wall’s here. I can paint in my studio for a week on one painting and nobody will ever see it. It hangs in a gallery and maybe two hundred people see it. With this, I get that in the first ten minutes.”
The beauty of these large-scale, dramatic works continues to capture the imagination of locals and visitors alike. As a highly-visible form of public art, they have democratic quality unrivaled by most other genres. When the project winds down, Shane will start again on next year’s, continuing his mission to facilitate art that elevates us out of our daily lives and, if only for a moment, inspires us to lift our heads skyward and really take a good look around.
The 2015 Richmond Mural Project wrapped up on July 24, but you can see their pieces at the locations shown here. To learn more, visit richmondmuralproject.squarespace.com.