Photo by Kim Ashford
Tats Cru, a collective of graffiti artists from New York City, studded this wall on the Museum of Public Art with iconic imagery reflecting the neighborhood, city, and region.
Two very different public art projects contribute to an ongoing conversation about identity
Just south of Government Street, down Eddie Robinson Drive through a short, one-block corridor between South Street and Myrtle Walk in the Old South Baton Rouge (OSBR) neighborhood, the brick exteriors of vacant buildings serve as canvases for an edgy, urban art form. Giants crouch at the corners of walls; figures dance through kaleidoscopes of color; angular, interlocking “wildstyle” tags explode out of the walls. This cacophony of graffiti art—with every inch of its bright, hyper-saturated, kinetic energy—screams. It screams vitality. (It screams, “We’re here!”)
North of Government, in the heart of Baton Rouge’s downtown grid at the starting line of Florida Street’s miles-long sprint east into Livingston Parish, two buildings wear more abstract, though equally unexpected, murals. They are less sweeping than their cohorts in OSBR—more measured and even-paced—but they register a similar moment of surprise and colorful relief amidst the visual white noise of concrete and cars.
What’s notable about these two samples of public murals is that they each represent independent, though contemporaneous, efforts. The former, generated by the Museum of Public Art, and the latter, generated by the BR Walls Project, were envisioned by different people and born by different methods, but each attempts to address, through symbol and the transformative power of sheer attention, abandoned or neglected areas of the city.
Both of these districts, downtown/mid-city and OSBR, suffered the results of the same mid-twentieth-century urban swell that cities all over America suffered. People left, businesses left, more people left. Tara Titone, project manager with the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), calls this hemorrhaging of human and financial resources “disinvestment.”
In downtown Baton Rouge, the blight is much less ubiquitous than it once was, thanks to significant attention and a steady influx of resources from both state and municipal sources over the past two decades.
OSBR has not been so lucky. Titone, whose organization has been conducting a strategic economic revitalization effort in this community since 2005, explained, “There is a lot of pride in the neighborhood. It is a historic African-American neighborhood with deep roots and a lot of special character. But … there’s no investment there. There used to be a lot of economic growth and vitality—[but] at this point, there’s not.”
While one of the actionable items in CPEX’s strategy included the production of public art, the exceptional examples that exist there today can be attributed solely to the vision and direction of Dr. Kevin Harris.
Harris, a local orthodontist, is a reclusive figure. He declined two requests for an interview for this piece; preferring the murals—and the community—to speak for themselves. Those who have worked with him, however, can explain his pivotal role in their origins. “Dr. Harris found willing property owners and started with the shell of a building he named MOPA [Museum of Public Art]. Then he moved on to other sites,” said Titone, explaining how the MOPA effort progressed. “While [Dr. Harris] is not from the neighborhood, he’s done a very good job at reflecting the heritage of the community; and he’s been well received by the neighborhood.”
MOPA, a roofless, windowless shell of a low-slung brick building, has been transformed—inside and out—into a canvas for murals executed by world-renowned graffiti artists from New York City, Chicago, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Holland, England, Spain, and Australia. Here are portraits in homage to Louis Armstrong, Richard Pryor, and Mardi Gras Indians. Tats Cru, a collective of artists from New York City, studded one wall with iconic Baton Rouge imagery and sprayed “Baton Rouge” in big, electric blue letters with a red heart in the middle. The artists have also left outlandish, wildly creative self-portraits of themselves, plying their exuberant trade in a variety of styles. Spectacular in execution, these murals place the history, art, and music of Baton Rouge’s black heritage in proud relief.
The murals on MOPA, along with those on neighboring buildings like the Lincoln Theatre, another beacon of hope in OSBR, are a gift to the neighborhood—yes, a collection representing some of the finest practitioners of graffiti art in the world, but also an investment reflecting a belief in the transformative power of public art.
According to MOPA’s website:
The Museum of Public Art is dedicated to the creation of community-inspired murals in the South Baton Rouge Neighborhood. We believe that Public Art is a force for positive community development in ways conscious and unconscious. How the message is conveyed through imagery, text, and symbolism, effects [sic] the soul of the community… instilling a sense of hope, and history, through creative expression which unfortunately in many inner city communities, is stymied and stifled.
This perspective on public art has precedence in the world of art theory and public art policy. Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge President and CEO Eric Holowacz explained that public art does more than just decorate. Art that is informed by and conceptualized with the identity of people and place at the forefront promotes social engagement. “Public art engenders discussion,” Holowacz said. “It is a representation of humanity and its rituals… It is putting a mark down to show our relationship to the cosmos.”
This genre of art, as new and progressive as it seems, gains clarity through a historical lens. Though public art stretches back to the ancient days of cave drawings, it still functions today as it did across the millennia, expressing the worldview of a group of people: where they come from, what they do, and how they connect to the world. “It’s pretty powerful,” Holowacz said.
In contrast to the private patron model exercised in OSBR, the Baton Rouge Walls project is a textbook example of a community engagement strategy called crowdsourcing. Co-founded and curated by The Force Agency’s Casey Phillips and Kathryn Thorpe in 2012, the project used Kickstarter, the web-based company that provides a platform to raise funds for creative projects through its website, to raise an initial $25,000 to fund the first two murals, whose results are featured on the buildings on Florida between Third and Fourth Streets mentioned previously.
Working under the slogan “Commerce Creates ART Creates Commerce,” BR Walls brings artists, individuals, and businesses together to produce the large-scale murals. The aim: to build sustainable sources of funding to ensure that high-quality Louisiana art continues to be produced, making Baton Rouge streetscapes more attractive places to work and play, and encouraging continued investment in the heart of the city. “We can either wait for downtown to magically attract more residents and visitors. Or we can work to make the environment into a place where more people want to come and stay and live and spend money,” Phillips told Country Roads in an interview last year.
Though the project is not limited to local muralists, BR Walls has thus far drawn mostly from the talent of local artists—all the better to nourish the visual arts economy, providing a healthy injection of creative energy along with. To date, BR Walls has produced seven murals, with an eighth one currently underway on the southern wall of the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino & Hotel’s parking garage. Called Baton Rouge Blues Harp, the mural will feature an ambitious ten-story harmonica, an icon of the blues and hence, an icon of the city itself. One glance inventories a history that starts with slavery and continues with the manifestation of the city’s signature musical style.
Another exercise in place-reflection “hangs” down the road at 3347 Government Street. There, local artist Charles Barbier has painted a panoply of Baton Rouge musicians—dead and living—in his signature illustrative style. In the background, we see familiar landmarks and vistas: the Old State Capitol, the downtown building-scape, even the belching pipes of the Exxon refinery.
In the short time these two efforts have been en force, and due in part to their almost simultaneous occurrence, there is a buzz in the air and in the fiber optics of the city. It’s people talking about the giant skunk they saw painted on a wall on their way to work. It’s a photo of a flurry of butterflies ricocheting around Facebook. It’s the media, telling yet another story about another picture on another wall. It’s businesses and residents, ponying up to support the arts. Public Art, at this point, may seem as iconically “Baton Rouge” as the Capitol and shotgun houses.
All right, that’s probably over-reaching. But other organizations have taken notice … and taken action.
This summer, the mayor’s office centered its Youth Employment Program, “Love our Community,” around the production of a series of murals in OSBR as a way to engage teens in revitalizing areas of Baton Rouge. The eighty-nine kids, ages fourteen to sixteen, worked alongside local, national, and international artists. BR Walls supplied the local artists. MOPA flew in professionals from Chicago, California, and the Czech Republic.
While many of the artists conceptualized the space without input from the students, relying on them to assist with painting, one artist used his space to allow the students themselves to represent their own vision. On this particular mural, the message, “How we see the world” is written between two large eyes. The pupils and irises alternate black and white shapes and each eye houses words: homeless, worry, dead, corrupt—but also curious, powerful, faith, and fun.
Kia Bickham, chief service officer at the mayor’s office, explained that the project was all about restoring pride and value in the community through art. Through the literal alteration of a physical structure, a neighborhood—or even an individual—can undergo positive evolution. One student, Bickham recalled, “completely transformed his idea of what his future looks like,” upon completing the summer work. Prior to the program, he had absolutely no interest in college. His work in the blistering heat alongside his peers and acclaimed artists fostered a growing-up of sorts. The student left his summer employment sure that he would, in fact, strive for college.
Orhan McMillan, co-chairman of the BR Walls project, talks about the several-mile radius that is positively impacted by the proliferation of public art. “It changes the communal aspect of that place, …” he said, “sparking thought, sparking conversation, sparking education.”
Public art tells a story—sometimes it’s a “happily-ever-after” tale. More often, the story is fraught with discord and disagreement. But herein lies the beauty of artistic efforts that take place in the public sphere: they provide the fodder for an ever-evolving narrative through which community and identity are hard-earned.
“We are all imperfect yet impeccable,” declares the student mural on the corner of Eddie Robinson and South Street. Like the spaces it inhabits, art does not need to attain perfection to be a success; it only needs to strive for it.
Details. Details. Details.
Tour of Murals
If you’d like to take yourself on a tour of Baton Rouge’s spectacular murals, click here for a Google map in which we provide a detailed map of the city’s public art possibilities:
Museum of Public Art museumofpublicart.org BR Walls Project brwallsproject.com