A mural is of its place. Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" exists nowhere but in the Sistine chapel. You cannot understand Diego Rivera without traveling to Mexico City. Unlike a painting on canvas, murals stay put. A proper mural is of the community, for the community.
South of downtown St. Petersburg, off the tourist maps, a vernacular tradition thrives. Murals on the South Side double as signs. Giant cattle and fish announce a butcher shop. Elma, of Elma's Cafe on the Deuces, hands you a cup of coffee. Pac-Man devours a hoagie from the STP Food Mart off MLK. Catty-corner, in hand letters: 15 large Garlic Shrimp $4.99.
Cut off from the city's downtown revival, South Side businesses use local, independent painters. I met Thomas "Coach" English, one of the neighborhood's busiest, at the Enoch Davis Center the day after New Year's. Coach pulled up in a blue Chevy van, front door padlocked, with plywood side panels publicizing Negro baseball.
English was born in Muhammad Ali's Louisville, at the tail end of Jim Crow Kentucky. He looks older than his 58 years; he says he feels 17 and a half. He has a deep-throated laugh and an ear for caricature.
Coach played football in high school and went to the University of Louisville as a walk-on, before learning that college players hit like Ram trucks. With no resources beyond athletics, he dropped out of college. He taught himself how to draw from a Chuck Jones book.
English moved to St. Petersburg in 1996, the year a police shooting led to riots. He painted his response behind the Enoch Davis Center. On the mural's left side is a city in flames. A mob scuffles. A brick bounces off a bystander's head. Cartoon citizens, carrying signs, air their grievances. No Jobs. Health Care Cuts. Child Abuse. Shadows enter the Enoch Davis Center. People emerge on the right with diplomas and jobs. The mural implores, And you can too ....
Coach has his own idea for lifting up the community: baseball. His passion is the Negro game, a tradition he promises to revive in inner cities. He shuttles kids to parks in his van, teaching them a style of play closer to the Harlem Globetrotters than Tropicana Field.
Agreeing to tour the neighborhood with me, Coach hops into my Subaru. My engine sputters. The gas light pops on. "Turn the key halfway," Coach tells me, let the engine coax vapors from the muck.
I park the Subaru by a produce stand (formerly a native plant nursery) on MLK, near the gentrifying Roser Park neighborhood. A little red barn comes to life with Coach's illustrations. A peanut wears sunglasses. Frozen flips are advertised in three flavors — pineapple, peach and grape. On the opposite wall, smiling stick figures and a dog hawk oranges, apples and bananas.
Across the street we visit the "Loooooooong Bicycle." (Coach says eight zeros.) I cannot pass this mural without smiling. Seventeen people, plus one puppy, share a building-scaled bike. "One big family," a giant cartoon bubble declares. "Peace" and "Love" read two others. All races and creeds share the bike — black and white, male and female, young and old, Arab and Jew.
Politics are part of English's hustle. We hop into the Subaru for one more stop, the convenience store where Pac-Man devours a hoagie. Coach shows me "The Equation," a visual formula for social change. Martin Luther King + Malcolm X, "By Any Means Necessary" = Barack and Michelle Obama.
I confess that I had mistaken his Michelle Obama for Condoleezza Rice. Coach does not seem to care. He gives props to Condoleezza. "I did not think a black woman could get that high."
Politics mean day-to-day survival. Coach studied Hanna-Barbera as a kid, not Picasso. Lax city codes on the South Side allow him to blur commerce and art, bringing a smile to everyday life. "By any means necessary," Malcolm X wrote. That includes baskets of shrimp, 15 pieces for just five bucks.
Southside murals by "Coach" Thomas English:
"The Loooooooong Bicycle" (938 MLK)
Produce Stand (1013 MLK)
"The Equation"/STP Food Mart (1811 MLK)
Enoch Davis Recreation Center (1111 18 Ave. S)
Connie's BBQ (1795 16 St. S)
Elma's Cafe (1235 22nd St. S)