Wide Open Walls returns

Old North Sacramento merchants are eager for the positive publicity, but some wonder when revitalization becomes gentrification

A muralist fills in his outline with shades of color. It’s one of five new murals to decorate the Old North Sacramento neighborhood.

A muralist fills in his outline with shades of color. It’s one of five new murals to decorate the Old North Sacramento neighborhood.

Photo by Steph Rodriguez

As a second-year mural festival shares its “place-making” powers with a neglected business district in Old North Sacramento, the question of who really benefits from Wide Open Walls has once again surfaced.

Wide Open Walls is the brainchild of David Sobon, an art auctioneer and event consultant whose bio on the festival’s website says he was inspired to create WOW while biking down a Midtown alley that he envisioned as an untapped canvas. Sacramento’s largest mural festival to date launched last year with about 40 widescreen illustrations on an array of buildings and structures around the city. WOW’s inaugural showcase was largely popular, but did feature some high-profile controversies:

In September 2017, an unknown vandal tagged one of the murals in Oak Park with the following graffiti message: “Gentrify 101: Make it hip! (fuck that).” Around the same time, a wraparound mural by New Zealand’s Askew One was painted over on the side of Sacramento Pipeworks Climbing and Fitness in downtown. Organizers said there was a miscommunication between the artist and Pipeworks owners about what the illustration would be. Askew One said he became disillusioned with WOW when he learned what organizers wanted from the mural fest.

“I was told ’it’s great you‘re the first of many murals down there, it’ll attract new business and push the homeless people out of the area,’” Askew One wrote on Twitter in September. “And I will not ever be used as a tool to further alienate those already marginalised.”

Almost a year later, Sobon dismissed the notion that WOW acts as an agent of gentrification in a city reeling from high rents, a dearth of housing and the influx of Bay Area residents.

“Art does not displace people. Art and gentrification have nothing to do with each other. We’re talking about putting beautiful art on walls,” Sobon stressed. “The idea that a piece of beautiful art on a wall, and that it’s going to push people out of the neighborhood, I think it’s ridiculous. I really do.”

On Friday, the Launch Pad, an outdoor creative arts space located on Del Paso Boulevard, hosted a WOW kick-off party. Sitting under a canopy near the entrance was Marriah Treloar, a native resident of the neighborhood and an oil painter showing her work. While not participating in WOW, Treloar was excited about the positive publicity the mural fest was garnering.

“Instead of just a bunch of people out there selling drugs and turning tricks, it’s a different kind of people there and it’s better for us,” Treloar said.

Some business owners along Del Paso Boulevard say they are eager for the foot traffic WOW will attract to a corridor with a sometimes unfavorable reputation.

“I hope it shows a different light to the boulevard itself because I think we’ve got a bad rap no matter what we do on this side between the shootings and everything like that,” said Michael Chaves, who owns Son of a Bean coffee shop and art gallery. “What I like about it is that people that come to these events never come to this area for their own reasons or they never think that there is anything over here that’s worth coming to.”

Just up the street, Cong Nguyen, owner of the new King Cong Brewery, said he sees WOW as a positive first step. But if the boulevard wants to keep attracting new businesses like his, it can’t be the last.

“Whenever people come in here, they tell me how often they pass through this area but they don’t realize what’s happening on Del Paso Boulevard,” Nguyen said. “Although there is this idea that we are revitalizing the neighborhood, there still needs to be more attention put to the neighborhood to create this perspective where people want to stop while they’re passing by.”

Treloar said she wasn’t afraid of WOW displacing local residents with new money.

“I think that it’s going to create a lot of opportunities for people like me who didn’t have them before,” she said. “I, myself, come from a low-income family and it isn’t affecting me in a negative way at all. It’s creating opportunities for me.”

At least one WOW muralist says he sees both sides of the issue. Lopan 4000 is a longtime Sacramento street artist marking his return to the festival.

“You can argue both points either way. I think for Sacramento, it’s good because there’s not a lot of art in Sacramento,” Lopan told SN&R. “At some point, I can see the negative side of that more where they’re pricing out artists in the area. But it’s not a tapped market around here, yet. Right now, it’s drawing attention in a positive way.”

Lopan, whose work pays homage to classic comic books, anime and video games, added that mural culture is still new in Sacramento and that WOW is giving muralists access to large canvases they wouldn’t otherwise be able, at least legally, to paint. For example, Lopan and his partner-in-crime, Ernie Fresh, contributed to a mural at Sacramento State University with dozens of other local artists.

“[Wide Open Walls] is not taking projects away from people right now,” Lopan said. “But if they keep doing it at this rate, in a few years, I could see the negative side of that argument.”

This year, Sobon invited some of Sacramento’s busiest artists to participate in WOW, including Jose Di Gregorio, Anthony Padilla (Kinetik Ideas), Molly Devlin and Raphael Delgado. But he also brought in OBEY-clothing giant and professional street-artist Shepard Fairey, whose iconic “Hope” poster featuring former President Barack Obama became an overnight phenomenon. Fairey is slated to paint the Residence Inn by Marriott in downtown.

Altogether, 21 local artists and 24 visting ones are participating in this year’s fest. The latter category includes Shamsia Hassani, a street artist from Afghanistan, who is scheduled to paint one of the exterior walls of SN&R’s office on Del Paso Boulevard. Last year, 20 locals and 18 out-of-towners rattled paint cans into the night.