Just Like Starting Over
Celebrating ten years, the RVA Street Art Festival goes back to where it began.
They survive. For now.
An occasional graffiti tag aside, the familiar 36-foot-high murals created ten years ago for the first RVA Street Art Festival still stand, as striking as the day they were painted, on the abandoned Power Plant building.
“None of us can believe that they’ve lasted ten years,” says Jon Baliles, the co-founder of the weekend mural showcase, a semi-regular happening credited for helping to spur a cultural awakening in public art in the city. With more than a dozen different muralists in tow, the festival returns to where it all began, in the Reynolds North development along the Haxall Canal, on Sept. 16-18. “The murals from 2012 have become such an identifying part of Richmond. You can’t have a promotional video promoting Richmond that doesn’t have footage of that site in it. It has become an iconic spot in the city.”
That first year featured a mixture of nationally-known artists making giant paintings — like Mark Jenkins, who created the distinctive “Target” mural with the 3-D darts — alongside a few emerging Richmond artists. This year’s return will feature only homegrown talent, says co-founder Ed Trask, the acknowledged godfather of Richmond murals.
“In ten years, the talent pool in Richmond has just exploded. Look at the new generation of artists who were inspired by what happened here ten years ago, like Hamilton Glass and Mickael Broth. They did their first big murals at that festival and look at them now. Hamilton has done amazing community art-driven work, and Mickael has become a great artist with murals and sculptures.” (Trask, Glass and Broth are the three “legacy” painters returning to the Power Plant this year).
Technically, the festival has begun. Broth has already painted the first mural of the event, unofficially titled “The Witch,” which was unveiled when this year’s festival was officially announced in April. “He didn’t like what he did ten years ago and wanted to do another one, and we thought it would be a cool way to show everyone that there’s new art coming,” says Baliles.
For Hamilton Glass, the first Richmond Street Art Festival was inspirational both as a participant and an onlooker. “I saw how it transformed that space and I became more jazzed about public art and the possibilities… getting the chance to paint next to professional painters was an incredible opportunity.”
Glass, then an architect, has since become a muralist of some note — his latest epic painting will grace the side of Richmond’s Amazon distribution center. In 2020, he created Mending Walls RVA, a public art initiative that promotes collaboration between artists of different cultures to create murals across the city. “Without a street art festival, there would be no Mending Walls,” he says. “It’s something that inspired an entire generation – ten years – of public artists.”
A return after five years off
The festival has taken over four different city sites since 2012, but it’s been missing for five years.
“The last one was at the Diamond in 2017,” says Baliles. “We had planned one for spring of 2020 along Dock Street but we know how that planned out, and in 2021 we had Omicron lingering. So, yeah, this is an re-introduction, of sorts.”
The initial idea for a multi-artist mural fest came from watching how distant places had used public art to beautify and to spark conversations, Trask says. “I had come off of a three week volunteer job where I painted this mural in southern Brazil. It was the first time I felt like I was an artist, a lovely experience.”
At the same time, Balies, the son of former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles (and later a member of Richmond City Council) traveled to Venice, where he saw renowned contemporary artist Shepard Fairey painting in St. Mark’s Square.
They both had the same thought. “Why can’t this happen in Richmond?”
Trask says that he had always wanted to put up an outdoor gallery at the Power Plant, lying moribund and unkept, or a skatepark.”We just happened to walk by the Power Plant one day,” recalls Baliles. “And Ed said, I would do anything to have access to this wall.”
The space was in sad shape. “The Power Plant is an old industrial property, and hard to refurbish, and for whatever reason it hasn’t sold. The owners [the Kordish Company] are in Baltimore and we called them and they were cool with it. But we also understood that someone can could in and buy that site at any time, and take down the art. We knew that ten years ago, and we know it now.”
While they could see the value in a street art festival, the co-founders say that convincing others — funders, sponsors — wasn’t always so easy. “It was essentially us hustling to get whatever support we could,” Trask says. “When we went to the typical people to try and get funding, Dominion, Altria, Jim Ukrop, they just looked at us like we were crazy.” Some gatekeepers thought they would be “subsidizing graffiti.”
A tale of two projects
At the same time, another initiative, the Richmond Mural Project, was starting up. Although the two projects eventually diverged, they banded together at first to get the city to lighten the rules against public murals. “I went to the architectural review board and the city was like, you can’t do it,” recalls Trask. “My point was that these walls to be painted on were graffiti-ridden trash heaps. Let’s make them into murals people would want to go to. We have proof from other cities that a well-painted mural can be a way of graffiti abatement. It can transform an area.”
The Richmond Mural Project and RVA Street Art Festival delivered over thirty murals in 2012 alone,” recalls Glass. “It was an explosion of public art in and around Richmond. It showed artists that this is a viable medium.”
More than just pretty pictures, the festival offers an important window into the artist’s process, Baliles says. “People can watch art come to life. You come by on Friday and see the beginnings and then check it out Saturday and you are playing in your mind a game of ‘what’s going on here?’ But the great thing is that you get to talk with the artist and maybe ask them, “what does this mean?’ You and I can go to the Virginia Museum and see all kinds of priceless art but we can’t talk to the artists about how they made it in 95 percent of the cases.”
Trask recalls the original vision for the Street Art Festival was to showcase murals painted on multiple Shockoe Bottom buildings, with music and speakers and a large outdoor market (the event eventually included some now-gone art on surrounding edifices). “We planned for a giant production,” he says. It was businessman Jim Ukrop who took them aside, after writing a small check, and advised them to “‘make it small.’ He said to focus it, to make Richmond love it, and that we were making it too big. And he was right.”
Another important early supporter was Venture Richmond, who offered to become the festival’s non-profit Fiduciary. “It was a no-brainer for us,” says Lisa Sims, the CEO of the non-profit downtown development and advocacy organization. “We felt the Canal Walk needed some enlivening, and the Power Plant just looked forgotten…we knew that the exterior needed some love.” The results speak for themselves, she adds. “The murals sort of opened up the idea that the Canal Walk could be a place where you could go and have fun and connected to other parts of downtown. It kind of demystified that area.”
She feels that the art resonated for a reason. “These weren’t murals that were up high on a building that you couldn’t get to. It was in the early days of selfies and these were accessible pieces of art that people could walk up to and be eye level with. Because of that, so many people took their own photographs there, and posted them on social media. There were movies shot down there, and silent disco dance parties. People see the space now and want to be there and it wasn’t like that before.”
All we have are photographs and memories of the bicycling bees and regal psychedelic horses created at the 2013 Street Art Festival, held in the abandoned 5 1/2 acre GRTC Bus Depot on West Main. This is where the festival grew, incorporating sculpture, multimedia, and transportation history into the landscape. The depot was eventually sold, and redeveloped, and the art went away.
Much of the art created for the 2016 installment, held around the Southern States silos in Manchester, is gone. And, as redevelopment plans loom, the days are numbered for the rest. “We knew by talking to the owner that it would be developed,” Baliles says. “When we met with Parney [Todd Parnell, vice president of the Richmond Flying Squirrels] about doing it at the Diamond, we told him that we knew that the Diamond was on borrowed time but we didn’t care. Even having it for five, six, seven years with art is better than just with concrete.” (The murals at the Diamond still stand for now.)
The influx of Richmond street art, spurred on by that first festival, has become a real positive, Sims says. “Richmond is known for it in many circles. And right now you would be hard-pressed to find a large empty wall downtown.” There’s one noticeable effect too, she adds. “It’s true. The quickest way to end graffiti on a big wall is to put a mural on it.”
Does Richmond have a mural style?
Richmond now has more than 150 murals in and around the city, most painted in the last ten years. But does the recent proliferation of mural art share any kind of common aesthetic? What’s the Richmond style?
“I think it’s wildly diverse,” says Glass. “One of the great things is that we’re a transplant city. We get the best from down south and up north. There are public artists from all over here, so I don’t think there’s a Richmond style here.”
Everybody brings their own uniqueness, echoes Baliles.
“And that’s exactly what we wanted this year. Somebody like Nathan Kane, who does black-and-white geometric figures that really jump at you. WingChow is a former VCU student and her style is just off the charts. Emily Herr has been doing stuff for a decade, she’s done all kinds of fun projects along the east coast. Everyone is bringing a style to this year’s festival that will make an impact.”
The only sad part of this return is letting go — and wiping — those surviving, iconic 2012 murals, in order to provide this year’s painters a fresh canvas. The priming will commence on Monday, Sept. 12.
“As with any paint job, it needs to be re-done,” Sims says. “But it’s kind of scary, and sad, to see them go. I hope people go and soak it all up before it’s gone.”
“Wiping them gives them their worth,” Glass maintains. “It’s an evolution. And I think public art should be transitory. We don’t stay the same so I don’t think art should stay the same. Yes, there will probably be a big bright reaction to losing so many murals but in that reaction I hope people will be reminded of that first year and realize how special it was that those images rebirthed the space. Those murals were the seeds. Let’s reminisce about that.”
“We knew ten years ago that people weren’t going to like all of them, and they’d adore some of them,” Trask says. “You look at the blue owl and the el camino and the big target – they’ve become icons. There have been so many pictures and videos made about them, so many weddings in front of them. And the same thing is going to happen with this new round of artists coming up. I guarantee that some of the paintings will become iconic.”
“It’s going to be emotional,” admits Baliles. “But all of the artists know that this stuff is not meant to last forever. It’s the nature of street art.”
The RVA Street Art Festival is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 16 through Sunday, Sept. 18 at the Power Plant building along the Haxall Canal. Free. For more information, go to https://www.rvastreetart.com. Merchandise proceeds will benefit visual arts education at Richmond Public Schools.