By EMILY NIPPS | Times Staff Writer
DOWNTOWN — No one could predict the fallout when Tampa would wake up one morning to discover two blocks of a downtown street covered in colorful cartoons and whimsical images. ¶ Would people point and gasp? Would the mayor call an emergency news conference? Would news crews and cameras come flocking? Would the guerrilla artists be hailed as heroes? ¶ The answer: none of the above. ¶ City officials' response to artLOUD, an overnight grass roots art project last month intended to make Franklin Street more fun and friendly, amounted to little more than a cricket chirp. ¶ "I don't know if they don't know or don't care, or what," said Abbey Dohring of Commercial Real Estate Women Tampa Bay, which sponsored the project.
Which is a shame, she said, because a lot of people worked really hard on this "gift to the city."
More than a hundred people, including 25 Tampa artists, collaborated for four months to create an estimated $17,000 worth of artwork and landscaping along Franklin between Polk and Tyler streets. Dohring said she dropped hints about the surprise through press releases to several media outlets, City Council members and Mayor Pam Iorio — twice.
The inspiration for the project came after Dohring read a magazine article about a woman who bought an old brownstone building in Chicago, found out it used to be a brothel, and painted women with big hair and fancy dresses in the windows. Dohring and some colleagues dealing in downtown real estate thought empty storefronts along Franklin would look more inviting if covered with imaginary people.
The artists and organizers swooped in on Friday afternoon, Feb. 29, and finished hanging murals and painting buildings — with the property owners' permission, of course — the next day. They used aerial lifts and worked at dangerous heights as they hammered and sawed and sanded the plywood murals, all without pulling a single permit.
Still, not even police seemed curious.
"We blocked off streets," Dohring said, "and nobody questioned anything."
But Michael Chen, the city's urban development director for downtown, said he did notice and thought it was wonderful. He had family in from out of town during the weekend that artLOUD took place.
"Part of the problem I've had is I've been swamped at work," he said. "It's been almost six months of continuous meetings."
He finally saw it, he said, and left a voice mail for Dohring apologizing for not making the connection earlier.
"I've bragged to six or eight people about it," he said.
The praise comes with some reservation, though, because artLOUD organizers may have skirted the rules during installation. The city typically requires permits when people are using lifts and cranes, and certainly if city streets are blocked.
"I have to be very careful here," Chen said. "There are things that neighborhoods can think about doing that require city permits or approvals. ... I mean, (the artLoud work) looks neat and wonderful. But if the next neighborhood decides to go construct their own sidewalk, well, I don't want to reflect that the city would think that's a wonderful idea."
To be fair, Dohring said, she did start hearing some city buzz about the murals about three weeks after they were installed. She still has not heard from the mayor's office, and the public's response was somewhat underwhelming, too. (The mayor's office didn't call City Times back either.)
It didn't help that the makeover was the same weekend as the Gasparilla art festival, which featured a few hundred booths of artwork only a couple of blocks away. Perhaps people were confused and thought artLOUD was part of the festival, yet it still seemed odd to the artLOUD artists that so few people paused by the action on Franklin Street.
"I teach art at the Life Enrichment Center, and a few of my students came but couldn't find us," said Jimmy Vann, who painted cutouts of people and dogs. "One of my students actually slipped off a curb and broke her arm trying to come see my work."
Despite it all, Dohring considered the project to be a success, and many of the artists do, too. Once a desolate stretch of vacant retail space and construction debris, Franklin Street is now lined with images of women walking dogs, Mona Lisa mingling with a skeleton, a horde of celebrities trying to get past a roped-off nightclub.
Atop Paramount Wigs on Franklin and Cass streets, black silhouettes of women with wild, colorful hair are painted over the 38-year-old business.
"I really love it," said manager Michael Kim. "Customers used to come and see closed, vacant businesses and blight. Now they see something bright and different."
ArtLOUD may surface again. The group is planning a sculpture design contest and a proposal for Riverwalk. But it is doubtful there will be anymore overnight surprises, Dohring said, even though she still hasn't heard a single warning from city officials about attempting another secret stunt without a permit.
"I think they know that we know better," she said, "than to do it again."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.