There are murals. There is street art. And there is graffiti. Oftentimes, the difference is in the eye of the beholder.
But whatever you call it, art is splashing walls, doors and entire buildings across New Orleans — enlivening the streetscape and redefining neighborhoods.
“Public art creates and reflects culture,” said Rex Dingler, founder of NOLA Rising, a grass-roots art campaign that encourages street art with the goal of positively influencing communities.
Dingler is also a street artist who connects with other muralists around the world, assisting them in finding local sponsors and locations. He collaborated with Russian artist Mustart and TARD, a New Orleans graffiti artist, to create a colorful and provocative mural on a side of a Faubourg Marigny warehouse. The imagery includes a raised fist with the headline “Rise & Preserve,” delivering a strong message in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
On the Piety Street side of the same building is a rooster painted by an Australian muralist and a pelican rising out of an oil spill conceived by Brooklyn artist Alison Buxton.
“Murals have a powerful purpose,” said Carol Bebelle, executive director of the Ashé Cultural Center, which a decade ago commissioned murals in Central City to depict heroic African-American figures. During the period of urban renewal, community leaders wanted to reimagine Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard as a cultural corridor, Bebelle said. “Aspirational images” helped instill civic pride.
“It’s been exciting to use these images to claim the neighborhood,” Bebelle said.
In other situations, building owners just want to ward off graffiti and tagging.
Daniel Isaac Bortz, an artist from California, was walking down Ferdinand Street carrying a can of spray paint when he chanced across Chip Martinson. Martinson was tired of tags marring his building’s exterior, so he allowed Bortz to paint the logo of his custom-made furniture business, Monkey Wid-a Fez, on the roll-up warehouse door.
“He took some license with it,” Martinson said.
The ghoulish monkey wearing boxing gloves and a red fez has created a lot of interest, including a photograph in The New York Times.
“I haven’t gotten tagged since,” he added.
The price he paid for the mural included paint, lunches and beer.
Bortz also created a surrealistic mural alluding to the terrific forces of nature on the door of Architectural Lathe & Millwork. Tagging ceased there as well.
“Street artists understand the value of a wall. They won’t paint a brick wall — they have too much respect,” said Marvin Hirsch, owner of the woodworking firm.
Overlooking Frenchmen Street, a fantastic mural depicts a demonic piano player, leaning into a distorted keyboard with shadowy musicians in a forest behind him.
“There’s so much magic around New Orleans and its music that I wanted the piano man to be half-musician and half-magician,” explained Henry Lipkis, a California traveling muralist and “creativity instigator.”
In an online artist statement, Lipkis explained his motive: “To take a previously mundane surface and splash paint and twist colors around one another, pushing ideas here and there in a mad frenzy until finally a scene pokes its toes into the realm of readability gets me higher than anything else ever could.”