The Murals Are the Message

Refugees Welcome, by Pat Perry, commissioned as part of the Cleveland Foundation / Anisfield Wolf Awards / LAND Studio mural project, Inter Urban

Commissioned in bulk, murals have recently proliferated around Cleveland


At least one thing is happening very fast at City Hall: October 19, Mayor Frank Jackson’s office announced an extraordinary opportunity for a Cleveland artist—to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of our sister city relationship with Rouen, France, by traveling there to paint a large mural, eighty feet long by thirty-two feet tall, in partnership with Rouen artists Idem and Mozaik. The city of Rouen would pay all expenses. Applications were due October 26. The work would be done during a trip November 6 through 20. By the time anyone reads this, the new mural will be complete. It’s the second half of a commemorative exchange that began over the summer, when Rouen artist Patrice Marchand painted a mural on a wall of the Market Garden Brewery, near the West Side Market.

At the moment, a mural exchange seems just about a perfect token of Cleveland love. After decades during which almost no art other than illegal graffiti adorned Cleveland walls, the city has seen a proliferation of murals helping to define and beautify neighborhoods, and in some cases to promote diversity and community engagement.

Cleveland is still catching up to cities like Philadelphia (where Mural Arts Philadelphia has advocated for and coordinated public art in that city for thirty years, and claims sixty to 100 projects annually, including a restoration initiative to preserve older works) and New York, Miami, Los Angeles, among other thoroughly decorated cities. But the recent outpouring has been enough that in 2017, the Huffington Post counted Cleveland #6 among its nineteen best US cities to see street art.

Kay Rosen, Divisibility, Installation view at 750 Prospect Avenue

In the last five years, scores of legal, commissioned murals have been painted around Cleveland. Had they happened piecemeal, they might not have gotten our attention, except as beautiful additions to the cityscape. But the fact is that these days, murals are coming in bulk quantities, neighborhood by neighborhood, as art organizations, neighborhood development corporations and city governments have discovered they can make a big visual impact with a relatively small budget. Several of these efforts have led to more than a dozen murals at a time. The projects have brightened the city, revealed aspects of our culture, and put tens of thousands of dollars into artists’ pockets.

It’s another case in which artists have led the way on a shoestring: in 2013, as a component of their place-making grant from the Kresge Foundation, the community development corporation in North Collinwood asked Waterloo Arts to create an art program of three exhibits dealing with vacancy as a theme. But director Amy Callahan had just two time slots available on the gallery’s calendar. Her solution was that the third exhibit would take place outdoors in the neighborhood, consisting of murals that would leave a lasting impact. Thus Zoetic Walls was born with a total budget of just $20,000 that would create about twenty murals around North Collinwood, mostly along East 156th and Waterloo. Five years later, while one of the buildings is slated for demolition, and two of the murals on one building are destined to be painted over, most remain as a distinctive feature of the art district. They have had impact far beyond Collinwood: the idea was contagious.

“The Zoetic Walls were the first neighborhood-scale mural project in the area,” said LAND studio’s Tiffany Graham Charkosky. Since then, with community development corporations, foundations, LAND studio, and private funders all taking up the charge, murals have proliferated around Cleveland. In addition to Waterloo Arts, the Cleveland Foundation, Gordon Square Arts District, the City Club, the Inner City Hues collaboration, and the nonprofit Graffiti HeArt all have become major players fueling the local mural culture.

“There are different styles and goals with different projects,” Charkosky says. “Graffiti HeArt does a great job getting done projects that keep the connection to graffiti style alive.” Graffiti HeArt also has a scholarship program, raising money to send high school students to the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Pre-College program.

Murals are also commonly commissioned with community engagement goals. One of the Hingetown murals, by Creative Fusion artists Ananda Nahu, Gary Williams, and Robin Robinson, and coordinated by Cleveland Public Theatre, was created with input from residents of the Lakeview Estates public housing project. It comprises multiple images of children who live there. Facing Lakeview and running the length of the 620-foot north wall of the Shoreway between West 25th and West 28th Streets, it is the largest single mural in Ohio.

Bulk-buying mural projects have included the Inter Urban project (a series of murals with additional related installations along the RTA Red Line), the Hingetown murals (created as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program), the Gordon Square murals (along Detroit Avenue), Canvas City (a component of FRONT International that added three large-scale murals downtown), and the City Club’s Freedom of Speech murals. Together, those projects add up to more than seventy works. But there are a multitude of additional, individual projects, including Cleveland Skribe Tribe projects in conjunction with CAN Triennial and at Nikki’s Music in the Buckeye neighborhood, and ten murals in public spaces coordinated by Graffiti HeArt,  which together bring the total above 100.

There’s been a learning curve, both for artists and the organizations that hire them. Waterloo Arts Executive Director Amy Callahan, who initiated the Zoetic Walls project, says just five years ago, she could not find Cleveland artists outside the graffiti underground who knew how to paint on a mural scale. That meant most of the artists painting in that project were from out of town. Clevelander Bob Peck was the exception. Charkosky recalls that all the local artists who worked on the Inter Urban project were painting on that scale—enlarging images, climbing ladders and riding up and down on scissor lifts—for the first time.

By now, though, multiple artists accustomed to painting on canvas have added mural scale works to their repertoire, including Eileen Dorsey, Darius Steward, Dante Rodriguez, and Bob Peck. Several from the graffiti scene, including Swim / Osman Muhammad, Mister Soul and others of the Cleveland Skribe Tribe, have learned to work within the parameters of legal commissions. In addition, the heat application of vinyl has enabled artists to print photos and other digitized designs at mural scale.

City governments and community development corporations have also developed familiarity and a level of comfort with the idea. The City of Cleveland Planning Commission recently added the role of Public Art Project Coordinator. In that capacity, Tarra Petras is in the process of developing a database of public art in Cleveland, which will eventually be accessible to the public online.

Gordon Square Arts District mural by Ryan Jaenke at 6814 Detroit Avenue

But seeing the results and wanting to match them seems to have been the greatest driver of progress. The contagion is especially visible heading west along Detroit Avenue. After the Hingetown murals between West 25th and West 31st Streets, Cleveland councilman Matt Zone took interest and supported Gordon Square Arts District’s mural commissioning project between West 52nd and West 73rd Streets. Meanwhile, a little farther west, the City of Lakewood has created a Public Art Commission and guidelines for commissioning murals, which already has produced results.

“We were definitely inspired by the Canvas City murals and a number of things coming together, says City Club of Cleveland executive director Dan Moulthrop. We were inspired by the Creative Fusion project, and by the murals along the Red Line.” As result, the City Club has launched its Freedom of Speech project, a series of three murals at different Cleveland locations, as a way to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a 1942 mural by Cleveland artist Elmer Brown, which is in the City Club dining room.

Donald Black Jr., photo mural printed on vinyl, installation at the Harvey Rice Branch of Cleveland Public Library, 2820 East 116th Street, commissioned by the City Club of Cleveland

Because of their high visibility, murals have effectively helped organizations represent diversity. The Inter Urban murals took this up as a theme, charging artists with the interpretation of books that won the Anisfield-Wolf awards, which annually recognize books contributing to our understanding of race and diversity. The City Club has also taken up this cause. Its historic Elmer Brown mural—despite having been painted by a Black man—consists entirely of White men in heroic poses. Moulthrop sees the new murals as a way to promote the fact that freedom of speech is for everyone. The first, installed on the wall of Bonfoey Gallery, is a design by April Bleakney and features the figure of an African American woman. It incorporates lines from the City Club creed: “I am a product of the people, a cross section of the community, weak as they are weak, strong in their strength…” A second mural, a photograph by Donald Black to be installed at the Harvey Rice branch of Cleveland Public Library, features a young African American boy using a microphone to break through a glass American flag. A third design, by the late Christopher Darling, features diverse human figures against a red, white and blue background, juxtaposed with the words “Dialog,” “Diversity,” and “Democracy.” It will be installed at Cleveland’s New Tech Collinwood School.

The impact of the murals has been amplified, as well, by social media. Three projects in particular are made for that: As part of Instagram’s world-wide, LGBTQ diversity initiative known as #kindcomments, Joe Lanzilotta and Erin Guido (both of whom work for LAND studio) were commissioned to paint the “Love Doves” on the concrete wall near the Shoreway ramp at West 25th Street. Selfies of the rainbow-striped birds, which say to each other “I love you very much” and “I love you very much, also” are prolifically shared on the social media platform. Lanzilotta says at least one couple has used the image for their wedding invitations.

Also figuring prominently in tourist selfies are two murals coordinated by Graffiti HeArt. The first is by Ohio-born traveling artist Victor Ving, who included Cleveland in his “Greetings From” series. On a south-facing wall at West 25th Street and Chatham, it’s a postcard-style image juxtaposing locally iconic imagery within block letters that say “Greetings from Cleveland.” In the shadow of the West Side Market, it’s a natural photo op for visitors. A second in similar style by Vic Savage and Alan Giberson greets people entering Tremont on West 14th Street near Auburn, on the wall of the Tremont Convenience Food Mart.

All that sounds like a lot. But most of the mural projects to date are concentrated along a few corridors, and the trend has only begun to spread into other neighborhoods, like Buckeye and Hough. “We are getting increasing calls from council representatives,” says Charkosky. Meanwhile, with artists learning the trade, and with nonprofit organizations and governments developing capacity and getting comfortable with it, the proliferation seems likely to continue.