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Gulfport buildings provide an empty canvas for murals

Some think that a building with blank walls near the South Georgia Meat Market in Gulfport would make a great canvas for an artist to create public art.
Published Jul. 21, 2016

GULFPORT

Just like St. Petersburg, this city has a thriving arts community. It has arts festivals, like St. Petersburg. And it has regular art walks that feature the work of local artists, like St. Petersburg.

So why doesn't Gulfport have large, colorful murals adorning the exterior walls of some of its drab buildings? St. Petersburg does.

That's what Rosalie "Roz" Barbieri, a longtime resident and arts advocate, wants to know.

Twice in recent months, Barbieri has appealed to the City Council for help in touching up the city's look.

"We're an artsy community, a community of color, so why not make it an endeavor to have murals in the city?" asked Barbieri. "I have a list of addresses along 49th Street and also a list of all the artists who participated in St. Petersburg, and I'd like to go forward with it."

Council members sounded supportive, but indicated they're not sure what they could do to help.

"I think the murals (in St. Petersburg) are beautiful, but I don't know what that has to do with me," said council member Christine Brown. "The murals will be on private buildings. I don't understand what Roz wants us to do, but we'll support her because I think it's a good idea."

Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich suggested the council could encourage the owners of buildings to let street artists convert their dingy exteriors into tapestries of colorful images.

"We, as the City Council, can say, 'We encourage you if you have the opportunity' or, 'Let's get colorful' or something," Fridovich said.

But perhaps the council could do more.

Wayne Atherholt, director of cultural affairs for the city of St. Petersburg, said the city gave $25,000 in seed money to the art activists who orchestrated an impressive effort last fall to paint large, colorful murals along the city's Central Avenue corridor.

The SHINE Mural Festival was coordinated by Leon Bedore, a mural artist known as Tes One. He had the help of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, volunteers and art-friendly businesses that donated marketing, paint, lodging and meals to the artists.

In recent years, murals — also called street art — have become fixtures in cities around the world.

Philadelphia has a mural arts program and more than 3,000 murals, according to USA Today, and the street art in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami has become a point of civic pride and a draw for tourism.

Atherholt, who lives in Gulfport, said 49th street would be a good place for murals, noting that the community collaboration would be great for Gulfport and St. Petersburg.

There are two ways to get the project started, said Atherholt. There's the informal way, which is what the Gulfport council members proposed to do by encouraging property owners. And there's the formal way.

"The structured, government sort of way would be to have the City Council allocate money to the project, put a call out to artists, and then come up with a proposal for the property owners (of buildings) to approve or reject," he said.

Some residents sound receptive. Even the city's Teen Council has put plans together to put murals on some community spots in the past.

"We had a plan and an artist ready to paint a mural on the (public) beach bathrooms," said Elizabeth Brown-Worthington, the chair of the Teen Council, "but the (city) council wanted to relocate those bathrooms at the time so it never went through."

Cities that have murals have found that they tend to discourage the graffiti that often mars building exteriors.

In St. Petersburg, so-called "graffiti tags" — the scribbled signature of artists who illegally decorate anything from alley walls to dumpsters — have gone down dramatically since murals starting popping up downtown.

Where would murals go in Gulfport?

Its downtown district is much smaller than St. Petersburg's. The businesses that would likely participate in the project have limited space on their exterior walls. And many businesses don't own the buildings they occupy.

Jay Clark, a longtime employee at the Low Tide Kava Bar at 2902 Beach Blvd. S said it might be an extra hoop to jump through, but the bar's landlord has been receptive to community art projects.

"When we first opened this place we invited a load of people to come paint on the walls," said Clark. "So if we asked to paint something big on the outside of it, he would probably be pretty cool about it."

Low Tide has a half-finished mural on the back wall inside the bar, which Clark said should be finished soon. He said he hopes it sparks a trend among other shops inside the Art Village Courtyard.

However, Barbieri seemed to be focused on another part of Gulfport — the tired looking stretch of 49th Street that links Gulfport and St. Petersburg.

Margaret Tober of the Gulfport Neighbors civic group said a "collaboration between the two cities would be a welcome experience" — especially after the friction that arose last August when St. Petersburg dumped sewage into Clam Bayou after heavy rains overwhelmed its sewer system.

Tober suggested the businesses at 49th Street and 14th Avenue S would be a good starting point. "I would love to see a mural on that dirty wall that covers those businesses."

Another building on 49th Street with potential would be King Marine Engineering off Ninth Avenue. Gary King, the business and property owner, expressed support for the idea.

"I think anything that adds artistic value to an area is extremely valuable for a multitude of reasons," he said. "I love the art district downtown; I know people with murals on their buildings (in St. Petersburg). I'm 100 percent in favor."

King said his building, a World War II airplane hangar that is 2 stories tall and 55 feet long, is "gigantic" and "basically a canvas." If he were presented with an artist and an idea, he said, he would participate.

Other buildings down 49th Street that have large, blank walls or storefronts that could serve as a canvas are the South Georgia Meat Market off 16th Avenue S, the Quick Stop Beer and Wine complex off 15th Avenue S, and empty buildings nearby.

Katherine Wilcox is a student reporter at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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