Years ago, people got into all kinds of trouble for painting what was then referred to as “graffiti” on the side of buildings. Boy, have times changed! These days, developers are seeking out artists and paying them to paint inspirational murals on everything from breweries and boutiques to apartment buildings and corporate offices. In the age of Instagram, a photo op can mean big business, and that’s why murals have become more than just a giant expression of art. Now, in some cases, murals are a marketing tool — albeit a fun one at that. So what’s the scoop behind some of the most well-known murals in the South, and who’s painting the town? We take a look at the stories behind some of the South’s most beloved murals.
“It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham”
112 Richard Arrington Blvd. N Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Mixed media artist Merrilee Challiss says this mural started because of the excitement about the revival of downtown Birmingham. It was also a way to reintroduce people to The Magic City. In 2012, Merrilee says she and a few friends started talking at the bar she used to own. They kept coming back to the slogan “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.” Seven artists ended up painting the original version on the side of a building that has since been torn down. “People started taking photos in front of the wall … It was ground level and accessible and became a photo op pretty quickly. And it was just really fun.” It was such a success that the group started a mural collective to paint murals across the city. The first “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham” was torn down. But in 2014, a local business asked Merrilee and her crew to do it again — this time on the side of John’s City Diner. “It’s very photographed all the time — it’s in commercials and print work constantly. It’s funny because when you work on things like that, you’re pretty anonymous. We all just painted together — it just makes me smile to think about it and every time I see it.”
Old Fourth Ward on the Atlanta Beltline, Atlanta, GA
Lauren Stumberg lives in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, and she remembers frequently walking by what looked to her like a giant empty canvas. “I kind of got a wild hair and called the number on the banner and left a message with two different people letting them know I was an artist and I wanted to make art on the side of their building.” She was shocked when they actually got back to her. The result? A nine-story mural designed last year by an all-women team. “Street art tends to be a very male-centric world. And so I think it was very important for Lauren to bring together this group of female artists where each of our styles is different. Yes, we’re all female, but it’s not just one female perspective. Each of us brings something very distinct to the table,” says Molly Rose Freeman. Lauren recruited Molly Rose, Lela Brunet and Laura Vela in painting Persephone — the Greek goddess who dictates the seasons — along Atlanta’s Beltline. The collaboration was such a hit, the women worked together less than a year later to paint another Atlanta mural.
“I BELIEVE IN NASHVILLE”
2702 12th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37204
It was 2010, and Nashville was recovering from the devastating floods after more than 13 inches of rain fell in 36 hours. Artist Adrien Saporiti wanted to pay homage to his hometown, and the community rallied as a symbol of both resilience and growth. Rich Egan, who owns a Nashville artist management firm, bought the rights to the iconic mural last year and says, “I think the sentiment is so simple and straightforward yet so powerful. In part, because ‘I BELIEVE IN NASHVILLE‘ can represent so many different things for so many people. Whether you’re a local, a transplant or a visitor, this city will make you a believer — not only in the city and the world of opportunities here but in yourself and the community. There is an optimism here that I think the mural captures perfectly.” It clearly resonates with people, who stop by in droves. From sports teams and farm animals to people posing for wedding photos or with their pets, the mural has been huge on social media. The fandom is so big, there’s now an “I BELIEVE IN NASHVILLE” store!
“Confetti Hearts Wall”
1930 Camden Rd, Charlotte, NC 28203
Artist Evelyn Henson had been getting some modest fame, thanks to her popular “city prints.” Her whimsical and colorful work (think Lily Pulitzer) has been licensed by Pier 1 Imports, Pottery Barn and Hallmark. But things exploded late last year when a marketing director for a Charlotte real estate developer found her on Instagram and hired her to paint an inspirational mural. The colorful “Confetti Hearts Wall” has become the place to pose for a pic in Charlotte. Evelyn says the concept was based on the idea of throwing confetti around like kindness. It features hearts painted in different colors with the words “be kind” on one heart. She’d never painted a mural before, so Evelyn says she turned to YouTube to figure out how to go from painting on small pieces of paper to painting on the side of a wall. “It was all things I knew I could figure out. I wrote down all the things I didn’t know how to do and went one-by-one to figure it out.” She started painting during a cold and dreary day in December and was shocked when fashion bloggers started posing in front of the wall — even before she finished. “I loved the idea that people who wouldn’t normally be interested in art could walk by this and have art, and the joy of art, be a part of their day.” The mural was such a big hit, Evelyn has already done another one in Charlotte. She is working on a concept that would feature more “kindness” murals on buildings across the city.
214 East Main Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40507
This stunningly vibrant, 50-foot-tall explosion of color was created using spray paint and compressed air guns packed with latex paint. The re-envisioned version of Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial is painted on the back of the Kentucky Theatre building in downtown Lexington — more than slightly ironic, considering the 16th president was shot at a theater. Internationally acclaimed artist Eduardo Kobra painted the wall art back in 2013. It was the first mural from art collective PRHBTN, an organization that has since gone on to bring more than 30 murals to Lexington. “Tens of thousands of people can view the mural every day, and it has changed the way that area of town exists in the fabric of Lexington,” says PRHBTN co-founder John Winters. “As our first mural, it was done on such a grand scale and could not have turned out to be more important in changing the discussion around public art and what it could mean to the city and the people of Lexington. It’s been six years, and I still find myself saying, ‘Hi Abe,’ every time I drive past it.”
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