WASHINGTON — The alley next to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Northwest D.C. is awash in yellow, green and red paint.
Four notable men watch over the restaurant: President Barack Obama, TV icon Bill Cosby, musician Chuck Brown and radio personality Donnie Simpson.
“It’s people. It’s artists. It’s neighbors,” says Perry Frank, project director of the D.C. Mural Project, which documents local street art in the District.
Murals are on the rise in D.C. Eight new pieces have been completed since last summer, says Sarah Massey, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities.
“People are becoming more receptive to murals,” Massey says, adding that residents now see the benefits of street art, including pride and community engagement.
On Saturday, the commission will host a dedication ceremony for a new mural in Northeast called “Crossroads,” which can be seen from the Red Line.
Created by artists Coby Kennedy, Daniel Hopkins and Cita Sadeli, the mural “depicts elements of the old D.C. and the new D.C. smashing into one another” and is meant to inspire “fantasy” and “daydreams,” the artists say on Facebook.
The dedication ceremony will take place near the Metro Branch Trail.
Joanna Capps, an intern at D.C. Mural Project, calls the creation of more murals “a democratization” of the city.
But despite the push to create more street art, some murals are being taken down. Near Navy Yard, for example, temporary cartoon paintings were torn down earlier this month as part of a planned revitalization effort.
Before meeting with Capps and Frank, I never thought much about murals. But they really opened my eyes to a whole new world of art and, kindly enough, gave me a two-hour crash course.
We meet at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which unveiled its new mural in 2012. I love their chili dogs, but I never thought much about the colorful mural on the side of the building.
The smiling faces of Obama, Cosby, Brown and Simpson are highlighted by blue bubbles that make them pop out from their otherwise two-dimensional concrete backgrounds. The mural is meant to welcome patrons, while simultaneously honoring notable figures from D.C. society.
It was here that I met Frank and Capps. Before hitting the streets in pursuit of more murals, they gave me a brief history lesson:
The contemporary mural movement took D.C. by storm in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. D.C. Mural Project describes the artworks as “the first social media” given that they capture the singular climates of various neighborhoods.
After leaving Ben’s Chili Bowl, we hopped into Capps’ car and headed to the outskirts of Howard University to see “Seasons in the City.”
This mural gives the impression of a seamlessly crafted painting, but it’s actually an eclectic mix of artistic creations.
It “shows a lot of different types of people that exist in the city,” Capps says. “We’re not really in a distinct neighborhood, but all these people are here.”
The mural portrays the seasons in a year or even the seasons in a life.
“The overarching theme is education … being near Cardozo High School and it’s not that far from Howard (University),” Frank says.
This mural is beautiful, but my favorite is the Columbia Heights Community Mural located in, you guessed it, the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Looking at this mural felt like peering into an artist’s history textbook.
It has a collection of historical icons that helped shape the present, including the Tivoli Theater, flamenco dancing and Malcolm X. As cliche as it may sound, without the past, none of us would be here today.
“The murals both reflect their neighborhoods and they shape their neighborhoods,” Frank says.
“It’s people stepping out and saying, ‘These are our stories.'”