The city that wears its art on its sleeve

Charlottesville’s murals illustrate a city wrestling with its identity

Words by Ben Hitchcock and Thomas Roades.

Charlottesville’s most popular mural could not be more straightforward: “I LOVE CHARLOTTESVILLE A LOT,” reads the wall of Fitzgerald’s Tires in Belmont. The jauntily spaced red and black letters are a pilgrimage site for residents and students alike, a focal point in a town that loves art and loves itself.

“I Love Charlottesville a Lot,” at Fitzgerald’s Tires, is perhaps Charlottesville’s most popular mural. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

Charlottesville’s walls have become increasingly colorful over the last few years, as artists and organizations have leapt at the chance to reimagine the visual landscape of a rapidly changing city. The Tom Tom Founders Festival City as Canvas Mural Project has sponsored multiple murals since its founding three years ago; The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative’s Charlottesville Mural Project, founded in 2011, has commissioned and consulted more than a dozen murals, including “I Love Charlottesville” and the abstraction on the side of The Graduate Hotel. Charlottesville now wears its art on its sleeve.

The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, which has commissioned numerous Charlottesville murals, is itself covered in public art. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

This vibrant evolution becomes more complicated in the wake of Aug. 12 and the ensuing period of town-wide self-reflection. As many have recently noted, Charlottesville’s class of well-educated, high-earning white liberals have long engaged in a dangerous sort of “performative progressivism.” After President Donald Trump’s election, Mayor Mike Signer declared Charlottesville the “Capital of the Resistance.”The city feels like ground zero for new-age, lumbersexual, craft-beer liberalism, likely home to more Priuses and Bernie stickers per capita than anywhere else in the state. But this brand of progressivism often falls short of creating real progress. Slapping a nice picture on a wall in a decrepit neighborhood and claiming to have made a tangible difference exemplifies this trend.

This context casts the various strategies adopted by Charlottesville’s muralists into a new light. Some of Charlottesville’s murals are bold and subversive and brash. Works by artists like Kaki Dimock and Tandem Friends School are squarely situated in the tradition of the mural as political activism — as the shard of Berlin Wall outside Alderman reminds us, street art has long been a powerful tool in the hands of grassroots change-makers. Other muralists like Mickael Broth have embraced the abstract and apolitical in their art. Meanwhile, work by Chicho Lorenzo aims for a different sort of activism, an activism of aspiration, depicting not what is but what could be. The merits and flaws of these respective styles have been thrown into sharp focus by Charlottesville’s extraordinary political moment.

Look closely to see a street sign painted with checkers to blend into this mural at Mas Tapas — a lighthearted and creative touch characteristic of artist Chicho Lorenzo. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

Just around the corner from “I Love Charlottesville,” a similarly optimistic mural covers the side of the restaurant Mas Tapas. The “Floating Banquet,” painted early last year by artist Chicho Lorenzo, depicts a joyful scene — adults and children of all races and walks of life frolic through the sky or sit at a long banquet table, quaffing margaritas and laughing with each other. The mural is colorful, cartoonish, full of movement and life, no frowns in sight. It playfully incorporates in with the surrounding environment, featuring a street sign that’s been painted to blend in with the mural, and a streetlight grasped in one of the revelers’ hands as though it’s a cup.

The mural’s spirit echoes its creator. Lorenzo, originally from Madrid, arrived in Charlottesville in 2008 and has since painted murals in Belmont, at IX Art Park and near Barracks Road, as well as worked with local elementary schools. Lorenzo seems eternally cheerful — humble and quick to laugh, he signs his emails “Love&Rhythm.”

Lorenzo’s art may seem impossibly placid, but the effect is purposeful. Lorenzo understands art as providing an ideal for people and communities to strive towards.

“People ask me … I see just positive stuff, not negative,” Lorenzo said. “And I say yeah, because this is the possibility. This is the community that I believe we are and we can be. So somehow painting that … makes it real in the mind of people who see that mural.”

Though it isn’t activism in the traditional controversial, disruptive sense, Lorenzo believes his strategy can create real, sweeping change.

“Art, in general, is intrinsically political activism,” he remarked, positing that artists can be leaders by setting an example. “We imagine the unreal, the possibility. That should inspire everyone else to somehow consider those possibilities, so somehow they move society forward.”

Lorenzo’s optimism is admirable, but his murals leave themselves open to misinterpretation. Out in the wild, without Lorenzo — or a handy museum exhibition plaque — to explain, the murals are easily read as a depiction of Charlottesville’s reality, rather than Charlottesville’s unrealized future. In a city with a troubling habit of patting itself on the back a little too readily, simple depictions of a perfectly harmonious society read like a whitewashing of more complex issues. In 2014, Charlottesville was voted the happiest place in the country, despite facing problems like sweeping gentrification and a mounting housing crisis that disproportionately affected low-income and minority residents. Lorenzo’s art does not agitate this status quo.

Lorenzo’s mural offers a cheerful, perhaps idealistic vision of Charlottesville. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

Lorenzo’s aim isn’t disruption — it’s charm.

“I paint with colors and shapes that people find beautiful,” he said. Lorenzo sees this attitude echoed by the other artists and residents of the city. “Charlottesville, it’s a gardening community. We love our gardens, our flowers. We love this aesthetic.”

Lorenzo feels that his cheerful style fits Charlottesville’s longstanding ethos of focusing on the good things and ignoring the uncomfortable — an ethos the city has been working hard to shed.

“Even if I try not to be beautiful, and try to do it a little bit wild, it comes always soft, which fits the atmosphere in Charlottesville,” he said. “Soft and easy art.”

Broth’s 240’ mural stretches around a corner on Garrett St. (Photo by Ben Hitchcock)

Mickael Broth, a primarily Richmond-based artist who has also painted several Charlottesville murals, learned the hard way that art is not always easy.

“I got into painting large-scale exterior surfaces as a teenager by painting graffiti,” he said. His career as a graffiti artist was cut short abruptly, however — “That didn’t end well, I wound up doing almost a year in jail in Richmond for my involvement in graffiti,” Broth said. “After that, I really stuck to doing drawings on paper for a long time afterwards.”

Since then, he’s established himself as a well-known muralist in Richmond, receiving a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts professional fellowship in 2008. Though much of his work has been in Richmond, Broth has still made his mark on the walls of Charlottesville as well. In 2015, he was the Artist in Residence for the Tom Tom Festival, during which he painted a 240-foot-long mural on Garrett Street and another at Charlottesville Sanitary Supply, as well as a Charlottesville City Transit bus — a sort of moving mural.

Broth’s mural at Charlottesville Sanitary Supply is more abstract, and its street art style hints at his origins as a graffiti artist. (Photo by Ben Hitchcock)

“ [Painting a bus] was a new experience for [Tom Tom], and I think they were trying to do something creative and different,” Broth said. “It was all done with spray paint, and then [the bus] ran for two months I think before it was taken out of service.”

“We went into it knowing that this was a temporary thing,” he said. “[Murals] are sort of medium-term permanent. They can last 20 years, 50 years, but in general it’s a medium that isn’t this lifetime commitment and it can be a temporary thing. The ephemeral nature of the work itself is in a lot of ways important for the appreciation of it.”

Broth said he rarely has one specific message he wishes to convey with his pieces — “public art is … out in public and people will bring their personal experiences and interpretations to it,” he explained. As a result, his work tends to remain apolitical. His street art style is in itself a bit edgy — reminiscent of his roots as a graffiti artist — but its subject matter is generally abstract and uncontroversial. Broth’s massive mural on Garrett Street tends toward the surreal, with faces that seem to expand as they melt into each other and eye-catching color. The wall at Charlottesville Sanitary Supply displays a more calming color scheme, but just as much abstract action in its tangled mass of lines. His work in Richmond is similarly unconcerned with explicit political statement — recent subjects include Will Smith, C-3PO, and Madonna.

Though Broth rarely tries to make any one distinct statement with his murals, he did describe the medium as a form of expression for a city’s residents and one that can be constantly changing due to its aforementioned ephemeral nature.

He explained the prevalence of murals in his hometown of Richmond as a movement of self-expression and civic pride.

“The visual landscape is now far more representative of the culture of the city,” he said. “For a long time the city has had a very conservative tilt to it, but there was always this appreciation for art and for creative expression brewing under the surface, and finally we’re at a point where that is what is being represented visually.”

Public art inherently lends itself to that kind of public representation, Broth said. 

“Public art murals have somewhat of a political or ideological … sense in that it’s taking art out of a museum or a gallery or institution and bringing it to the public,” he said. “It democratizes [art], that idea that everyone should be able to experience art.”

Broth is the founder of the Welcoming Walls initiative, a project that brings murals to the streets of Richmond with the goal of building community spirit.

Broth is right that murals, just by their very existence, can deconstruct traditional systems and “democratize” art. But abstraction only has so much power when it’s not coupled with interpretation. Broth doesn’t concern himself with political nuance. Like, for example, the “I Love Charlottesville” mural, urban beautification and civic pride are goals of Broth’s work.

Kaki Dimock’s mural by the train tracks downtown has an overt political message, celebrating the anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

Murals can do more than that, however. The Rivanna River Watershed mural, located at the intersection of First Street and the train tracks, was painted by local artist Kaki Dimock in 2013 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. In collaboration with StreamWatch, the Rivanna Conservation Society, Rivanna River Basin Commission and the Charlottesville Mural Project, Dimock received over $11,000 in funding through a Kickstarter for the project, which she said celebrates the law as a successful public policy that’s benefitted many people. 

The piece depicts the Blue Ridge Mountains above several iconic University and Charlottesville buildings all resting atop an underwater scene featuring wildlife from the Rivanna River Basin — a symbolic representation of the relationship between the human community and the natural environment, according to Dimock.

Though a celebration of clean water is hardly a controversial stance, Dimock’s work subtly nudges its beholders to reconsider their entire worldview in terms of their relationship to the natural world.

“My work … is a challenge to the human viewer to consider animals in a different way,” she said. “I’m sort of trying to turn the tables a little bit and accentuate the need to balance our use of the environment with the animals we share it with. That is certainly an intentional and motivating thought for me as an artist.”

This is a theme not only in this particular mural, but throughout Dimock’s work, she said. Much of her work is in pen and ink, and occasionally watercolor, so the mural was a break from her preferred mediums, yet it still contains her signature focus on the importance of the animal world and its relationship to ours.

“The boundaries between the human world and the animal world … are more fragile than we think,” Dimock said. In order to get that message across, she often brings the two together in unconventional ways, breaking down those boundaries with somewhat surreal artwork “accentuating animals over the built environment, or placing them in strange environments.”

In the First Street mural, that juxtaposition manifests itself in the thin brown line separating the ground beneath the painted Rotunda and the vast expanse of water just below it. Though the buildings that define Charlottesville and Grounds are present, they’re hardly the mural’s focus. Instead, the underwater scene takes up about two-thirds of the space, with fish arranged in concentric circles that instantly draw the eye down. The river environment serves as the foundation for the man-made landmarks that are central to the city — demonstrating our dependence on the natural environment and, in particular, on clean water.

That concept of nature as the foundation on which humans are dependent is characteristic of Dimock’s work. “You might see a drawing of a town in my work, but the town is on the back of a giant red kangaroo,” she said.

Though paint-on-brick murals are not her usual medium in which to work, Dimock expressed an appreciation for the inherent subversiveness that accompanies the art form. 

“I would suggest that … murals are an act of activism and a little bit assertive in that art used to be the private domain of the rich,” she said. “The idea of public art means it’s automatically a little bit subversive, it is to say that beautiful things with meaning belong to all of us.”

She seemed to think that message was especially appropriate for a mural celebrating clean water — a natural resource on which we all depend.

“Water is everybody’s in the same sort of way,” Dimock said. “It felt to me that there were a lot of parallels between the water basin and the idea of [public] art.”

Dimock environmental agenda means her murals carry weight as agents of community change. Water conservation may not be controversial, but it’s a worthy goal, and Dimock’s murals advocate for change by distorting both physical and mental space.

A mural of two Native American Chiefs is barely visible in a narrow alley behind the Main St. Marriott. (Photo by Thomas Roades)

Charlottesville’s most disruptive mural is no longer visible without a little bit of searching. On Main Street, a narrow alleyway squeezes between the Grand Market Afghan grocery and the Marriott Hotel. Two Native American chiefs wearing traditional feathered headdresses stare sternly down from the wall of the Market. In 2011, when the chiefs were first painted, their line of sight cut across the corner of the street and fell upon the statue of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea that stands at the intersection of Main, Ridge and McIntire. Now, their view is obstructed by the hotel.

Unlike Lorenzo or Broth, the Tandem Friends School students who painted this mural had an explicit political agenda, based around subversion of the city’s status quo. Jack Ronayne, one of the Tandem students who worked on painting the mural, said that the mural represented a response to the statue across the street.

“I’ve always looked at the Sacagawea statue as being one of the worst statues in town,” he said, “just because it shows her as cowering and subservient, and that’s not what she was like in actuality. She was leading the charge, leading these totally dumb blind white men through the woods.”

The students who painted the mural aimed to undermine the statue’s comfortable, well-worn message.

“To have the two chiefs from the west kind of giving you this solemn, pointed stare, it just makes you reset,” Ronayne said. “Like maybe we should think about what we did to the Native Americans, and how the land was taken.”

The mural was commissioned by Ryan Deramus, at the time owner of Random Row Books, a used bookstore that had occupied the lot where the Marriott now stands. In a blog post written just after the completion of the mural, Deramus echoed Ronayne’s sentiments.

“It was clear from the beginning that it should directly contrast the perspective presented in the Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea statue,” Deramus wrote of the mural. The people behind this mural aimed to create contrast and tension.

The city resisted the mural immediately. Charlottesville declared the mural had been painted in a historic district and would need to be presented to the city’s Board of Architectural Review. He was asked by the City to retroactively apply for a permit and pay the $100 application fee. Deramus scoffed at the threats of the bureaucracy.

The mural eventually withstood the city’s resistance only to face new troubles two years later in 2013 when Random Row Books closed its doors. The building, a former auto repair shop, was demolished to make room for the hotel, which towers over the wall featuring the mural, and leaves an alley only a few feet wide from which to view it. Random Row was a community attraction — in addition to displaying the mural, the store hosted music shows, theater performances and conversations with local political activists. In its place now stands a Marriott, smooth tan concrete walls pressed up against the noses of the noble chiefs on the side of the neighboring building. The students’ brave statement and energetic activism is occluded by a cookie-cutter box full of uncomfortable beds.

The story of the Native American shows that Charlottesville needs more activism like the kind expressed by the Tandem students. There is still plenty in this city worth subverting and questioning. The community faces an affordable housing crisis at the same time as luxury apartment buildings continue to rise on West Main Street. The Lee statue still stands in Emancipation Park. Even after a year of important self-reflection, Charlottesville still needs an honest reminder of what it is, not a heartwarming declaration of what it can be.

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