Paint the town
Reno is about to become home to a new mural expo
You’ve probably noticed the two blue, 80-foot women that watch over Reno from the Whitney Peak parking garage. They’re hard to miss. Painted in 2015 and 2016 by Erik Burke and Christina Angelina—artist names OverUnder and Starfighter, respectively—these paintings are just a few of almost 150 that have turned this city into something of a mural magnet in recent years.
Soon, a third female-centric mural will go up on the last blank wall of the garage, painted by South African artist Ricky Lee Gordon, effectively marking the end of obscurity for Reno street art. Besides the fact that Gordon is super famous, he is also a part of a larger ensemble that includes 30 other international, national and local artists who make up the inaugural Reno Mural Expo. Other attendees include Collin van der Sluijs, Dr. Chip Thomas, Troy Lovegates, Sebastian Coolidge, David Young Kim and Yale Wolf, as well as local favorites Joe C. Rock, Bryce Chisholm, Mike Lucido, Kelly Peyton and Jamie Darragh.
With them, they bring images of climate change, Nevada history, immigration, native issues and extraterrestrial encounters.
“We’ve been working on [the expo] for close to a year and a half now,” said Eric Brooks, mural expo and Artspot Reno co-founder. For the past two years, Brooks has been leading mural tours with Geralda Miller, his co-founder of both projects.
“We realized that with all of the people that we’ve talked with, and in interacting with the artists, we needed to have a bigger celebration of creativity,” Brooks said.
But turning a two-hour weekend tour into a full-on festival is harder than you think. Or maybe it’s as hard as you think.
“It was an interesting process of convincing artists to sign on when we didn’t have walls or money, getting business owners to sign on when we didn’t have artists or money, and getting money when we didn’t have artists or walls,” said Brooks. “It was my first major fundraising project.”
Sixty thousand dollars later, the expo is slated to happen—thanks in no small part to the City of Reno, the project’s three dozen community collaborators, and its relatively silent partner, Erik Burke, who is responsible for recruiting a good chunk of out-of-town talent.
In addition to business sponsors like Whitney Peak and Mynt, the City of Reno has also thrown its support behind the project after seeing what mural festivals can do to enliven downtown areas.
You would think that painting 20,000 square feet of vacant brick and concrete with beautiful images seems like a no-brainer, but the politics of mural festivals can get complicated quickly. First of all, you can’t swing a paintbrush in this town without someone crying gentrification. That concern is not wholly unfounded.
Midtown has followed a development pattern that is typical for neighborhoods and cities experiencing growth spurts. Art is followed by retail and restaurants, and they’re followed by advertising. According to Lamar Advertising Vice President Matt Strofus, midtown is the place for clients who want to advertise in a location that is “hip and trendy.”
“The more Midtown develops, the greater the demand,” Strofus said during a recent phone call.
Whether this is positive or negative depends on who you are.
“It’s nothing new,” said Brooks. “The more people who move in from the Bay and with Tesla and the tech companies, it will go beyond gentrification to where the cost of living is much higher than the wages anyone is willing to pay. Minimum wage is $7.25, and a studio apartment in midtown is now $850-900. It’s super hard to live.”
Another sticky issue is the inherent tension between making art and selling out, temporary and permanent. For some artists, this illustrates the gap between graffiti and other street art. Traditionally, two main differences between graffiti and murals are that the former is illegal and usually trades in words, while the latter is legal and focuses on images.
There is also plenty of crossover talent. Dutch muralist and former graffiti artist Collin van der Sluijs is a regular at mural festivals. Firmly on the other side of “making it,” van der Sluijs gave a rock ’n’ roll analogy in a recent phone call.
“I always see a lot of the same names [at festivals],” he said. “People tour like a band. They just make a Europe trip for a few months or so.”
Though van der Sluijs started tagging when he was 11, he now supports himself by doing paid murals, including the one he will create in collaboration with Troy Lovegates at the expo.
Second-time muralist and Reno local Jamie Darragh is in a different place. She is neither attached to the permanence of her art, nor convinced that graffiti is the best way to come up.
“If you’re going to paint on walls, you should do it legally,” said Darragh. “I think if anything happens to it, it’s cool that it would be up for as long as it is.”
Perhaps the best example of the gray area surrounding street art profiteering is the Banksy piece that sits in the back room of the Sierra Arts Foundation—on display through the end of the festival.
Taken at face value, it is just a car-sized wall with an image of a rat in a Che Guevara hat, holding a can of red spray paint. The piece was “saved” by art collector Brian Greif after Banksy’s much sought after murals started getting poached, tagged or painted over in San Francisco back in 2010. In order to prevent the “Haight Street Rat” from a similar fate, the well-intentioned Greif paid for and cut out the wall in an attempt to donate the piece to a museums. Several turned down his offer. At the same time, Greif was flooded with six-figure offers from private collectors for his Banksy (“Walled in,” RN&R, Sept. 21).
Now, the piece sits in No Man’s Land, touring galleries across the country for no cost, trying to find a permanent public home, and watching over Reno’s first mural festival.
Beyond the wall
To be fair, it is entirely too soon to declare the Mural Expo a direct cause—or effect—of commercial interests run amok. For every artist who “parachutes in” to make work, there’s one who does not. For every business that gets a mural for sponsoring the Expo, there are private foundation dollars and in-kind donations that bolster the event for those who cannot afford it. Artists are being flown in, put up, fed and compensated. Furthermore, the City may well see some benefits. Brooks said that several cities in the U.S. and Canada have issued reports saying that outdoor murals have reduced vandalism and made for safer walking spaces.
In addition to making it right for the artists, the expo also provides a good bit of education for the public in the form of mural tours, workshops for schools, and a screening of A New Color, a film about the story of the mural expo’s master of ceremonies, Edythe Boone.
Led by van der Sluijs, student programming will take place at Hug High School and possibly a few more unconfirmed locations. Though the prospect of using actual paint is still being worked out with Washoe County School District, van der Sluijs is an optimist.
“It would be fun to do some lectures, but maybe we could figure out a way to get their hands a little bit dirty, but not toxic, you know?”
As for the new artists, getting a chance to paint at the expo is an education, too. For Darragh, this means showing up with a game plan and some confidence.
“What’s really important is to get the main parts [of the mural] done, and then if I have extra time to add some detail, then I will,” she said. “I think I can manage this wall by myself. I’ve got it. I hope. We’ll see.”