You’d be hard-pressed to find an unpainted surface in St. Petersburg today. The booming mural scene has drenched most available walls, street surfaces, highway underpasses, and even cars with vibrant artwork.
Prior to 1970, things looked very different. Most of the city’s murals appeared only in real estate listings then, advertising posh condos for sale complete with hi-fi stereo, shag carpeting and custom paint. That year, with nods to a growing scene in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico led by artists like Diego Rivera, the local newspaper ran a retouched photo speculating (under heavy skepticism) about how one of St. Pete’s downtown buildings might look with a mural on it.
If only they could see us now.
Nearly 50 years later, on the cusp of the fourth annual SHINE St. Petersburg Mural Festival, the city has become a kind of outdoor gallery, the backdrop for more than 500 murals by artists from around the block, and around the world (disclosure: the author sits on the SHINE Festival steering committee). Tourists and locals alike can be found daily exploring the streets on bikes or walking tours, snapping selfies in front of patterned walls.
CHECK OUT A GALLERY OF DOWNTOWN ST. PETE MURALS
By their nature more accessible than museums or galleries, St. Pete’s murals provide a starting point for conversations about place. They revitalize buildings and bring art squarely into the public forum. Mayor Rick Kriseman, who previously served on the Public Arts Commission, lights up when talking about the transformation.
“Our city is a canvas, where you become part of the art,” he said. “It raises our visibility as a world-class destination. There are no boundaries, or at least there shouldn’t be.”
So how did we get from little in-kitchen frescos to sprawling open-air exhibits in just a few decades? A breakout moment arrived in 1976, when the nonprofit Morean Arts Center commissioned artist David Ogdie to paint his abstract Rainbow Ribbon on their former 7th Street South building. A photo of Ogdie’s swirling stripe appeared in the then-St. Petersburg Times — a tentative step to positively position mural art and separate it from unwelcome graffiti or vandalism.
Pat Jennings, proprietor of The Art Supply Store in the ‘Burg for nearly 15 years until he closed up shop in 2017, frequently offered outdoor wall space to local artists and hosted one of the city’s earliest legal live-painting battles. He sold professional-quality spray paint to a growing customer base, and soon found his store frequented by detectives hoping to wipe out graffiti tags. Their conversations led to the promotion of more “legal walls” as sanctioned spaces for art to flourish.
“We quickly realized the medium of choice for urban artists was walls,” Jennings said. “As the walls became available, as consciousness rose among the community, you slowly started to see the illegal graffiti starting to drop off. All of a sudden artists began having a place where they could go and practice their craft.”
For its duration, the revolving wall at Jennings’ store featured work by dozens of locals, visiting artists, and crews from San Francisco, New York, and beyond. As each new layer of paint dried and was captured in photographs, another artist was already waiting in line to bring their vision to life.
“We gave permission to everybody,” Jennings said. “It was helpful to the artist, but even more importantly, from my perspective, was that it conditioned the public, and awakened a consciousness in the public that this was a legitimate art form.”
Johnny Vitale gave up tagging and started painting billboards back in the ‘90s, joined over the years by his younger brothers Paul and Joey. Today through their company Vitale Bros., the three travel as respected artists and bring live mural shows to corporate clients such as L’Oréal.
“The public arena is the new gallery,” Vitale said. “It’s happening everywhere, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.”
Artist and curator Chad Mize, owner of MIZE Gallery on the western edge of downtown, painted his first mural in 2014. A pastel-hued homage to ‘60s fashion icon Twiggy adorning the wall behind Mize’s former Bluelucy Gallery, it can still be viewed in the art-covered alley stretching behind Central Avenue’s 600 Block.
“I had never done a piece that large, and now I’m kind of addicted to it,” Mize said. “It inspired me personally as an artist to up my game. I tell artists all the time, ‘If you can do a piece of work in a public setting like that, do it, because then your name is on the street.’”
Today, the city presents an ever-bigger draw to visiting artists. Under the attention of curators like Mize, and Amanda Cooper from the Morean, this year’s SHINE fest promises another round of uncommon, massive public artworks by six international, five national and multiple local artists, who will soon converge on the city to paint its walls (and bikes, and electrical boxes, and... you get the idea). They’ll travel here from as far away as Spain, Pakistan, and Germany.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE ARTISTS FEATURED IN SHINE 2018
With a mission focused on public art’s power to connect, the roots of SHINE reach back to 2012, when Leon “Tes One” Bedore curated the first Leave a Message art show at the Morean. That indoor-outdoor, street-styled exhibition led to the creation of two nearby murals, one of them a collaboration between Bedore and Chris “Palehorse” Parks painted along the back wall of the State Theatre.
Bedore described it as deliberate “art for art’s sake,” designed to stand apart from advertisement or clichéd image. He wanted the mural movement to become contagious. It worked.
After stepping away for a time to focus on family, Bedore returned in 2015 to organize SHINE with support from the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance and a team of dedicated volunteers. Designed to elevate the city’s street art profile, the inaugural SHINE Festival ushered in the creation of 16 new murals by a roster of celebrated artists working in styles from abstract to cartoonish to photorealistic. In the three years Bedore was involved with the festival, more than 50 such murals were created on St. Pete’s outdoor spaces.
“These works make our city streets a public art museum, showcasing some of the greatest murals in the world that can only be found in St. Pete,” Bedore said via email. “From the very beginning I believed that if we could protect this very small, simple idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ as the core of SHINE, the benefits for the creative community would flourish.”
SHINE offers a platform for emerging and established local artists to share the spotlight with their world-renowned counterparts, while encouraging people of all ages to grab a roller and participate in hands-on projects.
Local artist Carlos “Zulu Painter” Culbertson makes an effort to contribute each year, whether working on a SHINE community wall or creating elaborate solo and collaborative murals.
“It’s your opportunity for a lot of people to see what you can do live and direct and public,” Culbertson said. “To really affect the public with your art is just amazing. It’s an energy that makes people want to join the crowd.”
As an artist, Culbertson is busier than ever. He painted 15 new murals during a recent trip to California and back, attending art festivals in major cities along the way. SHINE stood out among those travels as an event that supports its artists, Culbertson said, as it provides a level of attention and compensation that seems ahead of the curve.
“It encourages artists to step outside their box, to go bigger,” he said. “It’s beautiful to see the magic happen, and the community that forms around it. You can unite a neighborhood.”
Pinellas County tourism director David Downing sees this evolution continuing in St. Pete, as more city spaces are viewed as potential canvas.
“It’s a reflection, in a very real way, of the energy and the sentiment of the city and the destination,” Downing said. “It is a living, breathing thing and I think that’s what people respond to. I don’t think there’s any greater reflection of the depth of arts in the community than public art. When it breaks out of the walls and winds up on the streets, that’s where I think it’s at its highest and best use.”
This year, Bedore is shifting back into personal practice, refocusing his time on studio painting and mural creations. He said he hopes SHINE will continue to flourish not just in downtown St. Pete, but throughout the entire city.
“The celebration of art should always be the driving force of SHINE and guarded from anything else,” he said. “Each year, for a moment, we cut through the noise and cynicism and we celebrate art. There is an exciting feeling that happens in the city during SHINE. A surge of creativity and anticipation of these larger-than-life works runs through the streets.”
Culbertson remembers his own early taste of that festive energy, honing his craft a few years ago on the walls of Bloom Art Center (now the Movement Sanctuary), a massive warehouse tucked beside the I-375 off-ramp at the gateway to downtown St. Pete. He fell in love with mural painting, with its freedom and physicality, the interactivity and departure from the studio.
“It’s about wonder, and getting the viewer to not be caught up in whatever they’re usually caught up in,” Culbertson said. “When you can get people to gather around a piece of art and talk about that art, I really think it’s a positive thing for the city.”
The SHINE St. Petersburg Mural Festival returns October 6 through 14, 2018. For information, visit stpeteartsalliance.org.