Art goes big in murals on walls of downtown St. Petersburg

A Moment to Reflect, a mural by Derek Donnelly and Sebastian Coolidge, covers the back of the Florida CraftArt building.
A Moment to Reflect, a mural by Derek Donnelly and Sebastian Coolidge, covers the back of the Florida CraftArt building. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published April 8, 2015


Let's take a walk. Let's put away our phones, pads and earbuds. Let's take our time and enjoy a delightful hour or so roaming through the Central Arts District discovering its murals. You can go it alone or join a tour every Saturday, organized by Florida CraftArt, with a docent, often the organization's executive director, Diane Shelly.

Ten mural seekers, plus Times photographer Monica Herndon and I, joined her on a recent Saturday morning to check out the 32 (and counting) examples lining the businesses along Central Avenue and First Avenue N between Fifth and Ninth streets. The walking tour lasts between 60 and 90 minutes most Saturdays. This was an unusual Saturday because, as we launched ourselves onto the sidewalk, the skies opened and poured down rain.

Did we falter? No, we did not.

Shelly popped on her foul-weather gear, we popped our umbrellas. Not a single person peeled off and headed for cover.

As we walked, I think many of us began to see the murals as more than a visually fun experience. Street art such as murals can also be philosophical statements that challenge some cherished beliefs about art. For example, the sacrosanct rule that art is to be preserved and protected doesn't always apply to street murals. Ephemeral art became a valid form during the 20th century when some artists purposefully made art that was meant to deteriorate. Murals, though, are different because they're made with paint, traditionally a medium associated with permanence.

Amanda Cooper, curator of the Morean Arts Center, says, "It's hard for me as a curator" to allow the murals gracing exterior walls of the building to succumb to the natural elements. "But talking to some of the artists, they have no problem with it."

Mural culture has blossomed in many cities in recent decades; Philadelphia and Miami are examples of murals being tourist draws and a source of civic pride. St. Petersburg has now boarded that bandwagon. In September a mural festival (official name still evolving) will debut, a days-long event that will draw national, and maybe international, mural stars to the city for a flurry of new works. Wayne Atherholt, the city's director of cultural affairs, says $37,000 has been allocated for it and for mural commissions.

"The group organizing it is identifying walls and are hoping to bring in some big names," he said. He's also hoping to get state permission to paint murals on some of the interstate overpasses that loom over city streets.

There are already big names involved, including muralist Leon Bedore, a Tampa Bay area resident who is known to the art and graphic design world as Tes One. He travels the United States and even Europe creating street murals and has a commercial client list that includes Absolut Vodka, Converse, Mead paper company, Nike and the New Yorker magazine. He and his friend Chris Parks, known as Pale Horse, painted one of the best and best-known murals in St. Petersburg on the alley wall of the State Theatre on Central Avenue.

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"I'm mostly self-taught," Bedore says. "I was painting walls long before I had permission. Even in my earliest days, my intention was the same: to create something people would enjoy looking at."

Murals are often associated with graffiti; both have been around since ancient times. The modern mural movement is an outgrowth of and response to graffiti, having become a kind of antigraffiti. Graffiti are considered an act of vandalism and are illegal in most communities because they are made without the permission of the property owner. Murals are commissioned and created with the cooperation of owners.

In recent decades, murals have become a way to spruce up bare walls of buildings and to discourage graffiti. St. Petersburg has street murals in many areas but there is a concentration of them along the downtown Central Avenue corridor. To see them at their best, you need to walk through the area. Even if you travel the route regularly by car, you'll miss many of them because they adorn the once-drab back walls facing alleys.

An incentive for owners of the buildings, says Shelly, is that they were regularly "tagged," meaning a graffiti artist would use an exterior wall as a canvas or to scrawl messages with spray paint. "It's illegal and the city has a graffiti removal program," so city workers come out and use whatever paint is available to cover up the tags, which led to a different kind of unsightliness, she said. "But taggers respect art, and most won't tag an existing mural."

That was a strong motivation for the huge mural on the alley-facing wall of Florida CraftArt, a not-for-profit that promotes craft artists and has a large gallery to sell their wares.

The wall was a routine stop for taggers and then for the city's graffiti police, who left random colors of coverup paint on it. Shelly commissioned Derek Donnelly to create a mural that would replace those painted-over areas and discourage future tagging. A Moment to Reflect was created by Donnelly and Sebastian Coolidge, another well-known street painter whose most beloved work is probably the image of a young man with elongated limbs stretching for an orange on the exterior of the clothing store Freshly Squeezed at First Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Reflect is the largest of the Central Avenue murals, stretching up four floors. It depicts a businessman wearing a green tie, the color associated with CraftArt's neighbor and sponsor of the mural, Regions Bank, discovering his creative side.

"I think it's the largest free-hand mural in St. Petersburg," Shelly says, meaning it wasn't done using a grid method or projector.

Donnelly's work is seen on other murals including one on the sidewalk-facing exterior of St. Pete Brew on First Avenue N. A sign ordinance regulating the size one can be means that murals can't double as advertisements. Donnelly cleverly and subtly subverted the law by painting a huge banyan tree spreading across the facade but substituting hops leaves (a component of beer) for banyan leaves.

"It's public art. Everyone will see it but no one can take it home. It's for everyone but no one. I think that's the essence of street art."

Because of the murals' growing popularity, some business owners rehire the artists to freshen up the works rather than painting over them.

But in Bedore's experience, "You end up learning that all murals are temporary art and not intended to stay up forever. (When painting illegally) I felt lucky to have one up for a night. A week was amazing. When an owner didn't have one removed I thought, 'I might be on to something if they're keeping it up.' "

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.