Updated: Jun 9, 2019
BY TOMMY BARTON
Some traditionalists may describe this form of artistic expression as vandalism. The less adventurous may view it as a warning sign that they are lost in a bad neighborhood and reach for the lock buttons inside their vehicles.
But in my opinion, quite the opposite is true.
In the South, conservatively leaning cities like Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., have embraced street art as legitimate, mainstream art. The city of Columbia, S.C., commissions and supports street art through the city-funded “One Columbia” organization.
In Savannah, which intensely regulates its Historic District to protect its integrity and its status as the nation’s largest historic landmark district, officials went so far as to approve a public mural ordinance and policy in late 2011 after public works of art on private property were rebuffed by the city or triggered city citations for illegal signage issued to property owners. Now there is a way to formally apply to paint a mural on private property that protects the rights of private property owners and people in the neighborhood who worry about murals that may be objectionable.
Forward-looking art groups in Savannah see public art as a way to embrace diversity, create beauty and contribute to neighborhood revitalization. The same is true in many other cities in the U.S. and abroad. Businesses and activists just up the Atlantic coast in Charleston have bought into public art in a big way. Some of the efforts are brilliant, as out-of-the-way, nondescript walls are used as giant, masonry canvases by artists who have something to say.
A TOUR OF CHARLESTON:
So let’s take a tour of Charleston’s largest art gallery – its streets.
Gentlemen, start your car engines and head west out of downtown Charleston to the West Ashley-Avondale neighborhood, ground zero for the local hipster culture.
Charleston is legitimately and consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most popular tourist destination cities. Its restaurant scene and historical vibe are superb. Charleston forces visitors to exercise all five of their senses. A recent, can’t-miss addition to the artsy-tourist scene is found in the West Ashley Avondale area across the Ashley River west of downtown. Here, a collaboration of artists and business owners has given people another reason to visit a town christened the Holy City because of its many houses of worship.
Organized by Lava Salon owner Geoff Richardson, the Charleston Art Outdoor Initiative worked with the city, property owners and artists to find suitable outdoor spaces for artistic projects. The first piece the group did was on the (Children's Cancer Society) Thrift Store tower. The group held a contest for the mural and got a grant to put it up – Ed Hose’s eye-catching “Mermaid.” The salon’s whimsical take on “Dirty Harry” -- Clint Eastwood brandishing a hair dryer instead of a .44 magnum pistol is enough to make any art-loving punk’s day.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ALLEY
The popularity of the mural contest combined with a trip to Barcelona, Spain, and the sad, shabby state of Alicia Alley, a public lane that runs behind Richardson's salon and several other businesses along the Savannah Highway, provided the inspiration for the art group, which also held street festivals to help raise money to pay for paint, art supplies and other costs.
Supporters of this forward-looking project have the idea that no wall should be left bare and no alleyway should be neglected. Given Charleston’s success, other cities would be wise to consider taking the same approach.
About a half dozen artists contributed to the stunning murals on and around Alicia Alley, which is a block off the main drag. Among those who contributed were Molly Rose Freeman, Ben Sellers, Mollie Howey, Scott Debus, Haley Hobeika and Patch Whiskey.
This transformation made it a different kind of alley. An eyesore is now an eyecatcher.
Some of the murals are so well-done that it’s difficult to tell where the wall surface ends and real life begins. My wife and our small white dog were swallowed up whole by a large, futuristic mural that they stood next to in the alley.
The Charleston group is smart to mix technology with art. It is posting the QR code boxes with each mural that can be scanned with smartphones and provides people with links to the group’s website, artist websites and eventually a digital map of all the works installed throughout the city. As word spreads, look for it to become another big tourist draw.
Judging by the traffic and lack of parking we encountered on a weekend visit this transformation is already happening. Alicia Alley may not be the Gibbes Museum of Art, a jewel box of a museum on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston. But for the price of a few gallons of gas and some mileage on your walking shoes, it’s a must-see for adventurous art lovers.
RENOIR ON A WALL
A more conventional, but still impressive and noteworthy mural is located on a wall in downtown Charleston on Queen Street just around the corner from the Gibbes at Mira Winery, a shop affiliated with the highly regarded winery of the same name in California’s Napa Valley. In 2014, the winery partnered with acclaimed muralist David Boatwright to develop a mural that would cover a bland wall near some of the city’s famed restaurants and define the presence of Mira in Charleston and the interaction of the wine with this historic city’s thriving food and beverage scene.
The result was an adaptation of Renior’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” set on a Charleston veranda and populated with those who are stars of the local culinary scene -- Craig Deihl, Sara Clow, Charlotte Jenkins, Robert Stehling, Matt Lee, Nathalie Dupree,|Karalee Nielsen Fallert, Victor “Goat” Lafayette, Matthew Niessner, Mika Lata, Frank Lee, Frank McMahon, Mickey Bakst and Michelle Weaver.
With its growth in public art Charleston is becoming as much of a feast for the eyes as it is a feast for the stomach. Come visit and get your fill.
Tommy Barton blogs about travel and food and is the retired editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.