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  1. Visual Arts

St. Petersburg is losing murals to construction. They’re always temporary, artists and officials say.

As the city grows and empty lots become fewer, murals of the recent past risk being hidden from view.
St. Petersburg based Ink Werkz Crew created this mural at 1610 Central Avenue for the first SHINE mural festival. Painted in late 2015, a Chase Bank branch was built on the parking lot in front of it in 2018. The artists Reid Jenkins, Scott Hillis and Sovoth Chan were never told that it would be covered. Jenkins found out from his then five-year-old daughter. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 12
Updated Sep. 15

A mural portraying a woman with bright purple hair whose hypothetical heart is being tugged at by two male suitors is featured on the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance website. With fingers on both hands mimicking scissors, she slyly threatens to cut one or both of the suitors loose.

Posted above the mural by Ink Werkz Crew is a note:

This mural was hidden from view by building construction in 2018.

The mural, on the side of Central Ave. Vapors, has been obscured by a Chase Bank built up against it.

Scott Hillis, Sovoth Chan and Reid Jenkins, who make up Ink Werkz Crew, are not alone. When their mural disappeared, it became the second in recent memory from the city’s SHINE Mural Festival to fall to that fate. Two others have been painted over.

Only a sliver of their mural is still there.

In the face of St. Petersburg’s rapid growth in recent years, vacant lots have become prime spots for developers to snatch up property for condominiums and new storefronts in the booming downtown.

When the Ink Werkz mural was created in 2015, the owner of the lot next to the vape shop used it as parking for nearby Tropicana Field. He sold the property to a developer in 2017, and construction of the bank began in 2018.

By the end of the year, the full mural was no longer visible.

A mural by New York City-based duo Morning Breath met that same fate on the side of 2036 Central Avenue. It was one of the first SHINE murals to be reduced to a fraction of its original size.

The mural is packed with bizarre drawings like a four-eyed man and phrases such as “the SICKNESS Call for a free sample” on a bright yellow background. Done during the inaugural festival in 2015, the construction of a storefront has hidden most of the mural.

Artist Derek Donnelly, who’s been working in St. Pete since the mid 2000s, said murals are, by nature, “semi-permanent" art form. Artists know that, he said.

“There’s not much anyone can do about that,” he said. But he admits “it stings” sometimes.

Scott Hillis and Reid Jenkins of Ink Werkz said they were not notified that their piece would be covered up last year.

Jenkins said his five-year-old daughter "came home crying to me, ‘They’re covering up your wall’.”

“My brother and I take my nephew downtown to spin Poke Stops playing Pokemon Go," Hillis said. "Our mural pops up in that Poke Stop, still. When you spin, it’s got the picture of the mural there.”

In the fall of 2015, the two men, along with Sovoth Chan, set out to paint from 10 p.m. to sunrise. That was to avoid getting spray paint on the cars parked in the lot during the day. Jenkins estimates there were Tampa Bay Rays games during five out of the seven days they were given to work.

They remember seeing residents in the Fusion 1560 apartments watch them work at night and police officers stopping by to do the same.

Donnelly estimates a quality mural — good paint and good workmanship among other things — can last anywhere from five to 20 years.

Public art must last at least 20 years, according to the city. But that can’t be guaranteed with murals, according to SHINE coordinator Jenee Priebe.

“It’s the nature of murals, unfortunately," Reid Jenkins said. "Murals don’t last over 20 years. They can be retouched, they can actually be treated to last, but they’re not considered public art, even though they really are public art. No one can own a mural.”

“We know, and the artists know, these beautiful works of art aren’t meant to last forever,” Priebe wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s the nature of art in the streets. Gallery work is different, and when an artist creates a piece for a gallery environment, there’s an expectation that piece of art will last.”

This mural by Morning Breath was painted for the inaugural SHINE festival in 2015. A storefront was built on the lot in the foreground in 2018, leaving the left side of the mural (the denture, the skull and the words "slightly crooked") visible. [Andrew Harlan]

She said the festival’s contract with the artist and owner of the property only requires the mural to stay up for one year. Once that time is up, the owner can do what they want with the wall and mural.

“I believe part of the beauty is in its fleeting nature," Priebe wrote. "We can appreciate each mural now because it won’t last forever, like everything in life.”

Priebe compared the reality of murals to that of graffiti.

“Many of these artists, particularly the visiting artists for SHINE, come from a graffiti background. Graffiti is far more temporary than the murals because it’s done illegally. The artists have virtually no expectation that their piece will stay even for a day,” she wrote.

A mural portraying a woman with bright purple hair whose hypothetical heart is being tugged at by two male suitors that is featured on the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance website. The mural is now hidden from view by a Chase bank on Central Avenue. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

“As those graffiti artists move into this contemporary mural art movement, many of them carry that same mentality. If they receive one final photo of their wall before it’s tagged or covered, it’s a success.”

Sebastian Coolidge's mural on the front of Freshly Squeezed in St. Petersburg on Oct. 13, 2012. Next door, Engine No. 9 expanded around the corner and as a result, this mural was painted over. [SANTANA, LUIS | Tampa Bay Times]

Artists of non-SHINE murals such as Sebastian Coolidge also have had works painted over as storefronts and buildings change hands.

Coolidge painted a mural of a lanky boy stretching to squeeze an orange on the side of Freshly Squeezed, a clothing store on 1st Avenue N. It disappeared under a coat of paint when Engine No. 9, the burger joint next door, expanded and took over Freshly Squeezed’s storefront.

He heard his work was being painted over from an Engine No. 9 employee about a month before it happened.

A mural by New York City-based duo Morning Breath mostly covered by a new building on the side of 2036 Central Avenue in St.Petersburg. It was one of the first SHINE murals to be reduced to a fraction of its original size. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Other artists have made compromises with fellow creators.

Local artist BASK allowed his “St. Petersburg Make History” mural to be painted over, according to John Collins, executive director of St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. South African-born artist Bekky Beukes used the wall on the side of Webb’s City Cellar for her SHINE mural in 2018.

Fine artist Bekky Beukes, 34, St. Petersburg, finished her outdoor mural at 1120 1st Avenue North, St. Petersburg, Monday, 10/15/18. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Bekky Beukes' mural replaced this one by BASK which was done in 2015. [Google Maps]

Artists in growing cities across the country are facing the same fate with their work.

A 2015 National Public Radio story reported similar circumstances of development threatening murals in Philadelphia as well as a number of other issues plaguing murals — considered legal but mostly unprotected street art nationwide.

Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic “Hope” poster of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, had a 100 foot-plus art piece covered up late last year. It made way for an addition to a downtown Detroit skyscraper, the Detroit Free Press reported.

In another twist, a mural of three bison painted on a downtown Iowa City building in the 1970s was uncovered after a Wells Fargo bank building was demolished in 2012. But The Gazette in Iowa City reported that the reveal wasn’t expected to last long as a 14-story building would replace the Wells Fargo one.

And although stories of recovering “lost” murals are fewer, they still can be found, as with a Keith Haring mural in Europe.

Last summer, aluminum insulation panels came off the side of a cold storage unit in the Netherlands to reveal a Haring mural, the New York Times reported. The famed New York artist painted a 40-foot mural on the brick wall of a museum warehouse in 1986 before it was covered up in 1989.

While Morning Breath’s 2015 mural is gone for now, Jenee Priebe said the city is using that situation to bring the team back to St. Pete next month for the fifth installment of SHINE.

“Bringing them back after their mural was covered up is a good move on the part of SHINE,” Derek Donnelly said.

Niajae Wallace walked by the Ink Werkz Crew working on their mural one night in 2015 and noticed the uncanny similarity. Wallace keeps her hair dyed purple. [Niajae Wallace]

One night when Ink Werkz was working on its mural in 2015, Niajae Wallace, then new to the city, happened to walk by. The guys spotted her — a black woman with bright purple hair and a similar dark complexion.

“I’d be lying if she didn’t look exactly like the girl in the middle of the mural,” Hillis said.

“He (Scott) was on the lift (painting), and I said, ‘Hey Scott, she’s right here’,” Jenkins said. “I swear to God, I thought she bought a wig to go out there and mimic it. No, she has purple hair all the time.”

Wallace thought she resembled her, too.

“That mural meant the world to me! I just sold my business and moved to St Pete and was wondering if I made a mistake,” Wallace wrote in a Facebook message. “Coming home one night and seeing that mural across the street from where I lived at the time, I knew that was the universe saying you are meant to be here!”

It was a friend who lived in the condominiums along the strip of 1st Avenue South behind the bank who later told her the mural was being covered.

“It was heartbreaking, because seeing it (for the first time) was a pivotal moment in my life in St. Pete,” Wallace said.

She remembered how people came up to her and thought they recognized her from it.

“It was one of my favorite parts about living in St. Pete,” she said.

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