The Business of Murals in a City of Businessby Tim Miner on April 23, 2019
It was the summer solstice of 2017. The temperature hovered just below 100 degrees. As the sun beat down on him, Jonay di Ragno painted a mural in NoDa.
And, he was having the time of his life.
“I was having fun. People bringing me slices of pizza and Sprite and beer,” di Ragno remembers. “I was going to start at 8 am and stop later, but people were so interested in the process, they would not let me finish. [When I went to the bathroom and came back], people were already taking pictures. [The work wasn’t even at] 50% of my vision. They were already smiling.”
Thus began a love affair between the artist, his work and the community.
Three Artists. Three Murals. One Building.
Di Ragno was part of a team of artists engaged by muralist collective, Brand the Moth, at the request of the owners of Solstice Tavern on North Davidson Street.
Led by artist Sam Guzzie, Brand the Moth exists to support “community arts and mural education in the Charlotte area by creating volunteer-based mural projects.” The group won the “Coach’s Award” at SEED20 this March.
According to Guzzie, the murals were intended to be “a gift to the neighborhood” from the owner of Solstice. Brand the Moth was paid to identify, organize and oversee the project. The work was conceived as an opportunity to capture the spirit of the NoDa community and an opportunity to live out the collective’s mission. Guzzie selected three artists who represented a wide array of mural experience and artistic styles – Nick Napolitano, Georgie Nakima and di Ragno.
It was di Ragno’s first mural in Charlotte. He was excited.
Di Ragno based his work off “Golden Spirals” long associated with the 12th century Italian mathematician, Leonardi Fibonacci. “Golden Spirals” and the “Golden Ratio” are used as fundamental concepts of artistic composition.
From the beginning, di Ragno enjoyed watching pedestrians engage with his work. They often stop to take photographs with it. He even started an Instagram account for the work, which is populated by selfies taken over the past two years. Two aspects that seem to invite interaction with the “Fibonacci” are that it is human-scaled and low to the ground.
One of the work’s fans is Jeanna Uscier of @CLTDesserts. “Every time I visit NoDa, it’s definitely a go-to mural spot to take photos. It’s such a beautiful, vibrant and simple mural that allows people to take photos and become creative in their poses,” she says.
This public interaction seems to tap into what di Ragno sees as a “hunger” that Charlotteans have for murals. The love he’s received isn’t just from admirers of the work, but from businesses like Magnolia Paint Company.
“I’ve done murals in Puerto Rico, Spain, Jacksonville. People embrace murals here,” said di Ragno. “They want more. The way they look at [murals] is like it’s a foundation for those thirsty for culture. You don’t have to drive to Asheville or Atlanta for culture.”
Solstice closed suddenly in November 2018. In March of this year, Mason Jar Group, owners of Uptown’s TILT and The Union in South End, announced they were taking over the space to open The District, a casual eatery.
New restaurants and businesses taking the place of previous businesses is nothing new. But, it does call into question the future of the murals commissioned by Solstice as the new owners make changes to the space. There is uncertainty on what may happen.
“Mason Jar Group encourages and celebrates all local Charlotte art, especially murals. Should we need to make changes to the structure of the building in NoDa, we have a contingency plan to replace the mural with a more local Charlotte/NoDa piece produced by local artists,” says Celeste Kaplan, director of event sales and marketing, Mason Jar Group.
No decision has been made yet regarding structural changes that may affect di Ragno’s work, but it’s caused concern from those who’ve become fond of it.
“Murals are beautiful and NoDa is a big part of pushing the public art scene. It breaks my heart to think the mural would go away … when any mural goes away,” says Vanessa Ross of NoDa’s Custom boutique. “Art [murals] are a part of NoDa pride. They create comradery. They should not be advertisements, but artistic expression.”
That’s where a gray area begins – where the community appreciation of murals meets the business of murals.
When the existing works were commissioned through Brand the Moth, carefully written contracts were part of the exchange, says Guzzie. The contracts outlined an obligation to notify the artists in advance regarding any exterior changes that might alter or damage their work, as well as how funds would be used should the murals be damaged. But, that contract existed between Brand the Moth and the previous building owner. It didn’t address change in ownership.
As a budding city of murals, intentionality and ownership behind work is an area Charlotte is learning to address.
The Business of Murals
Nick Napoletano was part of the Solstice mural team. He’s also a founding member of Southern Tiger Collective, an artist group dedicated to commercial screen printing, design, murals and hand-crafted original art.
Napoletano says Charlotte has to catch up to the world in its understanding of commissioned murals.
“Because murals are a cultural thing, it’s not often viewed as a business thing. If an artist is looking to get into the mural space, treat it as a business.”
Charlotte may be lagging behind other cities in commissioning artists to paint murals, but it’s catching on quickly.
In addition to mural work popping up in NoDa and around the city, the fall of 2018 saw more than 15 new murals created during the inaugural Talking Walls Festival. The event was founded by members of muralist groups Brand the Moth, Southern Tiger Collective and others.
Last November, LACA Projects commissioned Argentinian artist, Franco Fasoli, to paint a mural on the exterior of their building.
“The mural explosion is one of the best things to happen in Charlotte. Murals bring art everywhere and make art accessible to everyone,” says Teresa Hernandex of Pura Vida Worldly Art in Noda. “They are inspiring and add beauty and color to the neighborhood. Murals make the neighborhood more interactive. Murals provide an income venue for artists.”
That’s an important point. In a city of business, the business of murals is on the rise. But, with that business comes rules and best practices.
Napoletano is excited about Charlotte’s growing mural culture, but he is practical about it, too. While it allows him to create, it’s also his livelihood. That means being able to think like an artist and a business owner.
“In Miami, things get buffed over at least once per year. Our city needs more art on its buildings, but you need to know that your stuff is going to get covered up. If you have issues with that, then get it protected in your contract.”
It’s worth noting that the three existing Solstice murals replaced another mural that Guzzie says had served as something of a “placeholder” prior to the current work.
Who owns the wall? Who owns the work?
The struggle between what is considered “art” and what is “commercial art” is nothing new. Nor is the conversation about what work should be preserved and how to define it. This is especially difficult when the work in question has been created on a building owned by someone other than the artist.
The federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), passed in 1990, was created to address changes by new building owners that may damage, mutilate or destroy existing murals entirely. But, it also precludes the protection of work “made for hire.” *
Since passage of the law, artists have used VARA to seek recompense for a work they’ve lost to development. But, victories – such as a case regarding the “Ed Rucha Monument” by Kent Twitchell – have been few and far between.
It all comes down to the conversations and contractual agreements that occur between the artist and the property owner before the work is done. Both parties need to be clear about the intention of the work and its longevity and preservation in writing.
For example, Camp North End has commissioned several new murals for “End to End,” a two-day event celebrating innovation that’s part of the Charlotte SHOUT! festival, May 10 and 11. And, the paperwork was in order before any work was done. Varian Shrum, community manager at Camp North End, said conversations with some artists were detailed enough to include defining which party owned the walls that would be behind some of the work commissioned, as well as its potential lifespan.
To Napoletano, that’s a necessary next step as Charlotte’s mural community expands.
“Charlotte is protective of this new thing that’s going on, but they don’t really abide by the international rules,” says Napoletano. “There’s an international standard that is upheld in other cities. A universal code of conduct and ethics. Artists active in the mural space in Charlotte are inching closer and closer to this as we build a vocabulary around this work.”
Mike Wirth, a fellow member of Southern Tiger Collective and professor at Queens University, noted that, while it’s likely not practical to expect most property owners will be open to a permanent installation on their building, the ability to negotiate it often rests on an artist’s notoriety.
“A good example is Keith Herring. When he traveled somewhere to do a show, he worked into his contract that he had to paint a mural in that city and that it had to be left up permanently … or as long as he prescribed,” said Wirth.
Wirth feels a kinship with a long tradition of commercial artists, including sign painters and muralists, who applied their talents to paid-for-hire work. While he understands artists concerned about the longevity and use of their work, he also appreciates that commercial mural art is ephemeral and has a lifespan.
Wirth shared that he was recently hired to paint on a temporary adhesive placed over vacant store windows. The work will be removed when a new tenant moves in. “It’s totally temporary,” he says.
What’s next in NoDa?
As the summer solstice of 2019 approaches along with a planned summer opening of The District, there’s uncertainty about the future of di Ragno’s Fibonacci mural.
While they’re both busy with existing and future work, he and Guzzie are waiting to hear about whether The District’s construction will affect the mural.
“[If the building construction does mean the Fibonacci mural is removed], I’m hoping we can work with them to bring back the same artists on a new mural,” says Guzzie.
Kaplan says that, should the mural need to be repainted, Mason Jar Group would be open to talking to Brand the Moth about working together on a new work.
Meanwhile, the city continues to grow around existing murals and street art. And, so does the discussion that surrounds them.
di Ragno understands that the days of his Fibonacci may be running out. While he hopes that’s not the case, he’s also interested in the discussions and understanding that may come from this.
“I put myself first in line with NoDa people and not as artist. Next month, it could happen with another mural. NoDa for me is holy. I think there is something very original here. Very European,” he says. “The sky is the limit on what we can learn. I want to inspire people.”
Wirth finds himself wondering about the fate of other mural work in NoDa. Specifically, he’s thinking about murals done by the LTF Crew on the side of the Fat City Lofts in 2008. They are already subject to time and the elements. And, Wirth says he’s hearing rumblings that they may soon be affected by new development.
“They’ve been an important part of NoDa’s street art and mural culture, too,” he says. “People don’t Instagram in front of them, as much. I wonder what they’ll do if that work in danger of being destroyed.”
It’s a discussion worth having … and, possibly, getting in writing.
* Information from http://www.law.harvard.edu