Street Murals artists convert the ordinary to the extraordinary

Throughout Providence artists are finding ways to tell stories in sometimes unlikely places

By Amanda Milkovits, Providence Journal Staff Writer

Sandor Bodo Photos

Throughout the city, they are finding ways to tell stories in sometimes unlikely places — old mill buildings, bridge abutments, the sides of businesses and vacant buildings. Ordinary places can become extraordinary, with the right vision and some cans of spray paint.

Street murals are luring enthusiasts from all over the world, but they also shape the lives of the people who live and work near them.

That's the point, says Yarrow Thorne, the founder and artistic director of The Avenue Concept, which develops public art projects including some of the murals in the city. "These artists don't want to just paint a mural. They want to make an impression and tell a story."

Yarrow Thorne of The Avenue Concept in Providence, Rhode Island.
La Plaza del Arte y Las Culturas "The Plaza of Art and Culture," by Agustin Patiño, Compare Foods, Ontario Street

La Plaza del Arte y Las Culturas by Agustin Patiño

The 140-foot mural is a surreal landscape, with dream-like renderings of New York City, Boston and Providence, waterfalls and the ocean, and the serene face of a woman.

Look closer for the details. Each person in the mural means something to the Broad Street neighborhood. And now, this mural means something to them.

Maximo Abreu and Elis Valdez are among the people depicted in Agustin Patiño's mural.

Elis Valdez and Maximo Abreu, who work at Compare Foods, are immortalized on the wall. "I come by with my kids and show them. I tell them, 'I'm important,'" said Abreu, who was painted sitting on a bench, with Valdez standing nearby.

The mural is special for them all, said store manager Fredi Cueva.

"For me, I'm not used to seeing something like that, something that really represents a community," said Cueva. "I love it. I love that it's on the store."

Master Battlecat, by Nychos, on Jones Warehouse, Dodge Street.

Master Battlecat, by Nychos

He is fierce, glaring with his yellow eyes, with a toothy grin that can be seen all the way to Cranston Street blocks away. A fish flops near his feet.

The skeletal form of the giant cat is like a protector for the neighborhood, overlooking the Providence Housing Authority Education and Training Center and the basketball court at Codding Court.

The Austrian artist Nychos is internationally famous for his unique style of skeletons and dissection, and The Avenue Concept's head mural curator Nick Platzer, who founded Inoperable Art Gallery in Vienna, had known him for years. Platzer invited Nychos to Providence last year and found him this giant wall.

Nychos chose to paint a snow leopard (which is at the Roger Williams Park Zoo), and the fish to represent restoration in the Blackstone River. Local residents welcomed the artist's attention. "They were so appreciative of us choosing to do it in their neighborhood and not downtown," said Platzer. "That's why we do it. We hope it will inspire some kids, adults, everybody."

"For such an impressive piece of work, they did it so quickly," said Lourdes Morales, who lives in Codding Court. "It was amazing to watch them work."

The wall "was an eyesore before," Morales said, "and it turned into a work of art.

B Boy Wall and Untitled, by Greg Emerson and Nick Guilbert, Westminster Street Route 6/10 bridge abutments

B Boy Wall and Untitled, by Greg Emerson and Nick Guilbert

A blue sign for the Rhodeworks project to reconstruct Route 6/10 means the murals' days are numbered.

On one side, there are floating eyeballs, radio towers and cameras, an expression by the artists that shows how we're always being watched.

The other side are the B Boys, break dancers painted by Bridgham Middle School students more than 20 years ago and restored by The Avenue Concept. As they worked, people stopped to make sure they weren't painting over the break dancers, Thorne said. Then, three of the former students, now grown men, stopped by — and added their names to the mural.

Detail of the mural in the Rt. 10 underpass of Westminster Street.
Come 2Together to Stop the Violence, by Angel Garcia with Tru Skool students at City Arts!, Colfax Street

Come 2Together to Stop the Violence, by Angel Garcia with Tru Skool students

The summer of 2004 was like other summers in the city, when the heat brought trouble, shootings and death. South Providence was often in the crossfire.

Crime led Ricardo Duran to put up walls around his property. Then, he saw an artist and local teenagers painting a mural on the strip mall across the street. Angel Garcia was teaching teenagers at City Arts! about using art to express themselves.

Devil detail in "Come 2gether 2 Stop the Violence"

Their mural was blunt. A grinning devil pulls the strings on two masked gunmen.

At first, Duran said, he didn't want to see the devil outside his door. "But you need to understand the message," he says now. "Don't let the devil drag you around and drive your life."

The mural is fading, but its message is still relevant.

Duran said vandals seem to recognize that. "It's the only one they don't touch."

Detail of "Come 2gether 2 Stop the Violence"
Woman, Gorilla, and other murals, by Ricki Vespia, 244 Oak St.

Woman, Gorilla, and other murals, by Ricki Vespia

And then there's gorilla, or guerrilla, street art.

In the late 1880s, this stucco building was used by Weybosset Mills for carding and spinning textiles. A century later, it was a warren of artists and musicians, an underground scene for an art collective. Until the city building inspectors condemned the building in 2004 and kicked everyone out.

Since then, the building has had suitors with plans, like a proposed condo development, but nothing's taken off. The only ones who haven't abandoned it are the artists.

This building, tucked back from Olneyville Square, is an evolution of murals. The trip into the gritty complex is worth it for enthusiasts of street art — just to see what's possible with a four-story canvas.

Detail from Cleopatra and Gorilla "Monkey Business"
Detail from Cleopatra and Gorilla "Monkey Business"
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Lisa Newby
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Credits:

The Providence Journal/Amanda Milkovits and Sandor Bodo

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