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“It’s a ghost town. It’s broad daylight and it looks like a ghost town,” says Silly over a bucking engine. “You slap up a few murals and it looks alive again.” The Ford’s leather seats stick to us, the overcast offering no mercy in Richmond’s late August. Boarded-up homes punctuate a litter of tire shops and churches down Hull Street announce the coming of Christ—apostles available by email between empty lots. Silly Genius, whose given name is Tyrell Sparks, hovers over the steering wheel with a commanding studiousness of the area, uninterrupted by the potholes; he peeks around corners for walls he’s watched for years. “It looks alive and the people feel alive. It might take a little while before the money comes around, but you’ll feel better about being here.”

Silly Genius studies the way property is used to establish local identity with a quiet amusement easily mistaken for carelessness.

“I don’t do a lot to let myself be seen,” he says. When he first moved to Richmond from Halifax County, Virginia in 2004, he would walk up Hull Street through the city’s Southside towards his bus stop to get to work downtown at DTLR, an urban fashion store. At the time he was designing clothes on his own and working there as a salesperson. “That’s kind of how I got my start,” he says. “I wasn’t as heavy into street art at the time, but I still noticed. I’d walk to the store everyday and I’d see these buildings, and it’s like… that building has so much potential. Why is it empty? Murals weren’t as much of a thing as they are now. They were still looked at as graffiti, the criminal element was still heavily associated with it, but I would see stuff and be like ‘yo that’s a dope spot, somebody should hit that.’”

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Until recently, he didn’t have a car. Walking to the bus stop everyday, he’d write down addresses and search them later in an online property search engine. The record generally yields a holding company or the owner’s name and mailing address. Most times, he says, he has to conduct a person search to narrow down the exact property owner, and then call to ask if they would be open to some art on their walls. Some owners are hesitant, due to what he calls the broken windows effect. “If somebody paints [graffiti] then the idea is that it invites other acts of violence or vandalism,” he explains, “or you know, it looks like an area where people think they can get away with other stuff.” Despite owners’ hesitance, he explains that there could be benefits when people start coming by to see the art: “That means more people come to spend money with you, so just consider it an investment.”

For years he knocked on gatekeepers’ doors for support in painting benches at bus stops, or putting up small murals in corridors and bridges, he says he was met with either inconclusive answers or overt rejection. While he was excited by the art scene that was developing in the city, the tension grew as he kept going back home to a side of town untouched by the numerous revitalization efforts. There were big annual art festivals, but they overlooked most local artists.

As time went on, Silly’s calls to property owners went from simple inquiries to a developed pitch for the All City Art Club, an initiative started in July 2017 to animate the Southside with murals. With specific attention to the 22 blocks between Southside Plaza and the intersection at Jefferson Davis Highway, Silly Genius and his friend P.T. Carroll want to place large-scale murals around the area with the hope of attracting business owners and foot traffic along Hull Street.

“While the RVA Mural Project and RVA Street Art Festival have contributed greatly to tourism, the local economy and giving the city an identity,” the project’s GoFundMe page says, “not all of the city has felt that impact. All City Art Club plans to focus on areas that are suffering from poverty and urban decay.”

“Right here, you see these abandoned houses on the streets, right? Murals help to make the area look better, then people will feel better, and when people feel better things will start to happen,” Silly Genius says. “I would just love this area to be treated like every other part of the city where people come to start businesses and do things. This part of the city deserves to be alive just like the Arts District is alive.”

In 2012, Shane Pomajambo was working on the third G40 Art Summit, to be held in Washington D.C., when he got a phone call from RVA Magazine founder Anthony Harris. Knowing the work Pomajambo had done with his gallery, Art Whino, Harris sought to usher in Richmond’s arts district with Pomajambo’s proven skill for creative placemaking.

Two hours north in Alexandria, Virginia, Pomojambo’s three-story gallery is a kind of alternate universe, the muralized walls enveloping visitors into another world.

“I opened it in order to be able to change the art scene in the D.C. metro area,” he said, “and one of the things I did in order to make that change in the art scene is to do big events, so the G40 Art Summit was one of those events.” With the Art Whino gallery as the summit’s nucleus, Pomajambo brought more than 35,000 people to D.C. and then to Crystal City, Virginia for exhibitions of more than 5,000 pieces of art. The summit showcased customized collectibles, skateboard and mural art, stencils, and 3D installations from internationally renowned artists, muscling D.C. and Crystal City respectively towards the distinction of arts destinations.

1708 Gallery, the home base of Richmond’s Arts District. Photo credit to Francis Stephens

“Richmond had a super art scene for the longest time, so you guys didn’t need any help there,” he says. In his meeting with Anthony Harris, Harris suggested that Richmond wanted to establish an arts district, and pointed out an area on a map. “I mentioned to them that in driving around Richmond you don’t really see that it’s an arts district, and I told him that murals would be a good opportunity to make it more visible.”

In the area soon to be declared an arts district, near Virginia Commonwealth University, there was already a strip of galleries, thrift stores, and eclectic shops. On the first Friday of each month, a few hours before sunset, galleries open their doors to residents for an art walk. People play drums on the streets, youth slam teams raise money spitting poems on corners, and choirs bring keyboards and sing to children dancing in front of their speakers.

“I would just love this area to be treated like every other part of the city where people come to start businesses and do things. This part of the city deserves to be alive just like the Arts District is alive.”

“When I started asking different owners permission to use their buildings,” he reflects, “they all told me the same thing—they love Richmond, they just wish there was more business, more feet in the street.”

Pomajambo used the monthly art walk as a launching point for the summit. He secured six storefronts throughout the arts district for group exhibits, and 10 city walls for the murals.

Standing in the middle of Broad Street amid Rapid Transit construction, on either side are just a few of the galleries that comprise the district. Photo credit to Francis Stephens.

Brazilian artist Joao Lelo had participated in the first G40 in Washington, D.C. and was excited when Shane invited him to participate in the Richmond summit. At the time, he says, murals were new in Brazil as graffiti itself had only recently become popular in the late ‘90s and early aughts.

“It was my first time in Richmond. It was really nice, but it was a little different because in Brazil, graffiti was really accepted,” he said. “In Richmond we were doing the first murals in the city—well, you already had some murals but not like now. Now Richmond’s like an open gallery.”

Pomajambo’s goal was to establish Richmond as an arts destination by giving it one of—if not the—highest concentrations of murals in the United States. Business owners’ desire for feet in the street encouraged him to expand the project beyond a one-time summit into a five-year project with the goal of painting 100 murals in the city.

Once the summit was underway, investors quickly matched his excitement, making the 12 international artists of the summit the first cohort of the ongoing project and more than doubling the slated 10 murals to 22 within the month.

“The first wall they assigned me I did a sketch before I even left Brazil,” Lelo says. “Then after that people started seeing what was happening and started offering walls to the festival… I went there first to paint one wall and ended up painting three.”

“When I paint something on the street, I don’t want to just make a canvas on the street. I want to communicate with the architecture or whatever I’m painting,” he says, “for a long time I didn’t use backgrounds because I wanted the architecture to be the background. Street art has to have purpose. This painting is in this place because this place is part of this painting.”

As Richmond’s muralization began, Instagram was starting to boom. Residents posted pictures of themselves with the murals and it became a kind of game to find them. To post a picture of oneself with a mural others had not yet found became a form of social capital. To be seen seeing murals in one’s own city functioned not simply as individual identity-making, but promoted the city and a new kind of local identity. “It changes the vernacular of the city,” Pomajambo says, “and now all of a sudden, art is a part of it.”

Since completing the goal of 100 murals, the Richmond Mural Project will continue. Instead of an annual event, muralists will come to the city throughout the year to complete different projects. This spring when Pomanjambo returns with muralists to paint the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community building, the Institute for Contemporary Art will be open. Still, most of the muralists have been outsiders. Asked about featuring local artists, Pomajambo said, “every year I do one. Every year there’s 10 artists and every year, one of them is a local artist.”

“When I paint something on the street, I don’t want to just make a canvas on the street. I want to communicate with the architecture or whatever I’m painting,” he says, “for a long time I didn’t use backgrounds because I wanted the architecture to be the background. Street art has to have purpose. This painting is in this place because this place is part of this painting.”

A series of tire shops down Hull Street. Photo credit to Francis Stephens

All City Art Club’s cold calls and door-to-door pitches yielded few results until recently.

For three days in July, Genius and Carroll painted the Seafarm Fish Market’s wall at the intersection of Hull and Swansboro. Without the mural, the market is easily lost in the empty lots knotted by bottles and cigarette butts. “I was thinking of just repainting the wall white, then he came in and asked me if I wanted a picture on the wall,” the owner, Kwang Pak says. “So I said ‘okay.’”

“He was the first person to say yes. He said ‘it’s a fish market, so just put some fish in it,’ so we kind of took what we were already going to do and just twisted it to fit the theme,” Silly says.

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Carroll’s work is deeply rooted in spirituality, while Silly’s is influenced by anime and the culture of early ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons he watched. The cartoonish characters’ large eyes pull the viewer in. “So the response from the neighborhood was like immediate,” Silly says. “Soon as they saw us painting they was like ‘yo, thank you, you know, for doing something because we tired of looking at this ugly ass wall.’”

While Pak owned a technology shop, he loved fishing and helping out at his sister’s fish market on the weekends. After he gave up his tech store, he bought the fish market from his sister in early 2001, and he employed four people for just a few months before business started to decline. Now during the day, often the only activity is between his playing grandchildren.

A boarded up home just blocks away from Pak’s market. Photo credit to Francis Stephens

After 9/11, he says, “people moved out of the Southside. You can see on the streets, a lot of businesses closed down. A lot of empty lots.”

“When people buy the property up and decide, ‘okay, we’re going to revitalize this area,’ and then they invite all of the muralists and street artists to come in and paint murals, and then just over the course of years… suddenly the places transform from the hood to this place you can barely afford to walk through.”

The customer base is overwhelmingly neighbors, people whose families have long bought their fresh trout from the silicone coolers and talked to Pak, affectionately called Papa, while it fried. Rarely do people come across the bridge from downtown seeking him out. Despite saying yes to the All City Art Club, Pak is not confident murals will increase foot traffic or business down Hull Street.

“People see the wall and think, ‘oh, very nice.’ Nothing else,” he insists. “I bought this building so I have no choice.”

As we ride through, Silly points out a mixed-use building a block away from Pak’s that is selling for half a million dollars. Richmond property records reflect the building being in poor condition for its age with a value of only $249k as of the first of this year, but the realtor boasts: “This property is an amazing blank slate opportunity to create a destination in the wake of numerous Manchester redevelopment projects.” Presently, this far up Hull Street is not considered Manchester, an area in part built up by earlier street art festivals, but the posting emphasizes: “Build it. Program it. Manchester isn’t done yet!”

But what Silly sees in that advertising is something else: A development that will likely shut out the people who made the Southside what it is.

“It’s too soon to know how it’s going to affect us… What happens when property value goes up and they want to raise the rent? It looks good now but how is this gonna affect people in five years?” he says. He worries if the area becomes trendy, even All City could lose sight of what its original intent was. “When people buy the property up and decide, ‘okay, we’re going to revitalize this area,’ and then they invite all of the muralists and street artists to come in and paint murals, and then just over the course of years… suddenly the places transform from the hood to this place you can barely afford to walk through.”

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Lauren Francis

Lauren Francis is a writer and independent producer living in Richmond, Virginia. A 2017 Air New Voices Scholar, Lauren has received fellowships from Callaloo and The Conversation. She thinks you should listen to Michael Millions’s Hard to be King to get to know Richmond. http://www.lauren-francis.co