Take a drive – or walk – down most streets in Richmond and you’re likely to encounter a colorful mural depicting everything from Anime characters to black historical figures to a punk rock-inspired likeness of Bernie Sanders.
While Richmond’s apparent embrace of street art and the local and national artists who created it has been celebrated by the likes of Forbes and Huffington Post, this is undeniably a city that hasn’t historically been known for progressive politics, architecture, or art.
The story of Richmond’s murals is the story of a small group of people who saw potential to bring beauty to places it hadn’t existed to create good for their fellow citizens. It’s a story of how an idea can create inertia, can grow and expand until it no longer belongs to one person or one movement. It’s a story about people driving change against all odds.
From downtown to nationwide
It all started in 2002 when Jon Baliles, then a member of the Richmond City Council, co-founded the RVA Street Art Festival with local muralist and artist Ed Trask. Their goal was to beautify a disused space by enlisting national artists to create an outdoor gallery of murals.
Getting the Festival off the ground meant facing a range of obstacles and limitations, most centered around the city’s lukewarm involvement. This meant the organizers had to get creative in securing both funding and wall space. In both cases that meant turning to private companies for support, which created its own set of challenges.
“So much of the property in Richmond is owned and controlled by corporations with no connection to the communities where the property exists,” remembers Artist and Muralist Silly Genius. Among artists, there was and remains a legitimate concern that private funding of the art and private ownership of the walls where the art has been displayed would inhibit the creative process.
Even as the Street Art Festival gained momentum, slowly some of the challenges facing artists started to diminish making room for independent mural projects across the city. International muralist Nils Westergard recalls, “[At first] I would talk to ten, twenty wall owners before I could get one done, but now it’s quite easy. Which I’m sure my portfolio and reputation assist with but in general people are a lot more enthusiastic.”
Another offshoot of the movement was The Richmond Mural Project, which has taken on a driving force of its own. Founded by Shane Pomajambo, TRMP seeks to make Richmond, Virginia a landmark destination for internationally recognized murals and give the city more exposure.
Street art takes on new meaning
A major tipping point in the Richmond Street Art story followed the May of 2020 the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As protests around Black Lives Matter and police brutality spread around the country, street art’s longtime relationship to political speech and activism became more pronounced and poignant as they came in conflict with another “art form” Richmond was known for: the Confederate Monuments erected during the Jim Crow era lining one of its most affluent streets.
The artistic re-purposing of the Robert E. Lee confederate Monument represented a collective artistic response as the surrounding area – reclaimed as “Marcus David Peters Circle” in honor of a young black man that was slain by police during a mental health episode. Street art in the form of graffitied words of protest created a powerful backdrop and recontextualization of the space where artists, musicians, and citizens congregated and shared art, information and resources daily. Often in direct opposition of the city’s police and local officials eventually this movement forced the removal of not only the Lee Monument but also the other confederate monuments in Richmond.
Amid these revolutionary changes a new initiative was being born in the mural scene, one that would build on the RVA Street Art Festival by creating an outlet for the political and social consciousness that was taking over the city. Mending Walls, founded by artist Hamilton Glass, is public art project that pairs artists from different cultures and backgrounds to use art, collaboration, and mutual understanding to help communities heal. To date, the project has led to 16 unique murals, each exploring connective healing and unity.
The RVA Street Art Festival recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by returning to the site of its first installment, the Power Plant along Haxal Canal in the heart of the city. This meant painting over the murals that had been in place since 2012. A bittersweet moment, but one that shows that the Richmond Street Art and public art movement is far from slowing down and is in a constant state of change and renewal.
Ripple effects & lasting change
Today, murals and street art are a way of life in Richmond. This art does as much to beautify the town as to spark dialog and provoke thought. It’s easy to lose sight of all the organizers and artists had to overcome in pursuit of a vision for change.