With businesses across the US shuttered and shop windows boarded up, it’s a bleak scene in many of the country’s urban centers. But grappling with societal issues is par for the course for artists of a certain stripe, and from coast to coast, they’re stepping into the breach, using all that plywood – plus walls, benches, mailboxes, pretty much any space that’s available – as a blank canvas to share messages of hope, resilience, good humor, and public safety. From sincere tributes to essential workers to light-hearted visual gags, here are a few standouts from around the country.
1. Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte local Darion Fleming began painting large-scale murals in 2018 under the moniker Daflemingo, and his work has sprouted up across the Queen City – and as far afield as Asheville, Raleigh, and Washington, DC – ever since. When the crisis began in earnest, he says he noticed "a severe lack of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other essential supplies, as I’m sure most people did,” and from that run-of-the-mill observation, an uncommon spark of inspiration struck.
“One night – the 12th of March, to be exact – I came up with the idea to have Purell represented as liquid gold, relating it to a commodity, something hard to get and very valuable,” he tells Lonely Planet. He created a digital mockup that very night, began painting the next day, and continued on for eight days straight until it was completed.
He had a head start on the location, thanks to a project the month prior. "Finding a wall that you can paint whatever you want on legally isn’t the easiest thing in the world," he says. "Luckily, I had already used this wall back in February for another passion piece of mine, so I had a great relationship with the building owner and the surface was already primed and ready for paint."
Located in the heart of Charlotte’s arts district, in what Fleming describes as a very visible, high-trafficked, visitor-friendly area, the piece has attracted local and national attention, bringing, he hopes, a bit of levity to a literal life-and-death situation. “I wanted anyone who saw it to simply get some enjoyment out of it, crack a smile or have a quick laugh,” he says. “That’s why I hid the text ‘Available Nowhere’ on the label. In such a serious and scary time, I think a little comedic relief can be really healthy, and that was my goal with this piece.” daflemingoart.com
Artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler coaches the club swim team at the University of Denver, and while he’s still involved with the team remotely, he has more time on his hands these days – and he’s putting it to good use, creating a series of large-scale wall paintings dedicated to essential workers in industries ranging from healthcare to education to food service. “I was inspired to create the first healthcare image to show my gratitude to my close friends and family that are healthcare workers,” he says. “I was so inspired by the positive reception that I started a series [named] ‘walls of gratitude.’”
His first two murals depict healthcare workers with angel’s wings and boxing gloves, and the feathered appendages feature in each subsequent project – so far, a teacher, a chef, and a construction worker. Between prep and painting, the pieces take about two-and-a-half days to complete, and they’re in high demand, especially in the RiNo Arts District, where they can be found near the EXDO event center, behind the Denver Central Market, and on a fence at Bigsby’s Folly Craft Winery. He’s partnered with the latter to put his work on thousands of pints of wine, which are then donated to teachers, school staff, and healthcare workers, and his images also adorn a limited-edition crowler of cucumber-lime lager from the Denver Beer Co., “a tribute to those who have stayed cool as a cucumber under the immense pressure of working in difficult conditions,” the brewery said in an Instagram post.
“The community has been incredibly supportive, offering me walls and places to paint,” Zucchini-Fowler says. “My focus is to highlight as many professions that are challenged and working hard right now as I can.” austinzart.com; lkmndd.com
Graffiti artist Jules Muck – aka Muck Rock – may be based in Venice, California, but with her mural “Fear Kills,” she’s produced a piece of public art that’s quintessentially Florida. Located in Wynwood, not too far from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, where Anna Nicole Smith died in 2007, the mural “Fear Kills” features a closeup of the former centerfold wearing a face mask emblazoned with the word “fear” – a statement on the atmosphere in Miami as panic over COVID-19 set in.
Painted on March 12, “it was the beginning of people starting to get alarmed about the pandemic, and hoarding was rampant,” Muck tells Lonely Planet.
“It wasn’t a great way to see human beings – there’s preparedness, then there’s selfishness,” she elaborated to the Guardian. “The fear was causing people to be self-serving.”
Back in California, Muck painted “Gilligan on Covid Island” in Camarillo in early May “as the weirdness of isolation seemed to drag on;” in Ventura, she covered an abandoned reclining sofa with a pair of smoking skeletons, “a commentary on quarantine lifestyle ‘bored to death,’” and most recently, a portrait of mask-clad Winnie the Pooh holding a honey pot full of hand sanitizer went up in Glendale. julesmuck.com
4. San Francisco
If you’ve spent time in San Francisco since 2013, you’ve probably spotted fnnch’s honey bears around town. The street artist describes his whimsical take on the classic ursine bottle as “a universal symbol of happiness – positive, nostalgic and inclusive” that was originally designed to create a sense of cognitive dissonance within his audience. “The viewer would realize that a piece was illegal,” he says, “but that they liked it and wanted it to stay. They had to resolve that dissonance somehow – perhaps the law was wrong, perhaps we should have a mural program for our mailboxes and electrical boxes, perhaps more landlords should support murals.”
Over the years, the image changed and evolved, and the honey bear family grew to encompass a range of incarnations – Wine Bear, Pizza Bear, Pride Bear, and Bowie Bear, to name a few. Now, with the onset of the pandemic, fnnch has clad some of his most popular designs in masks to encourage healthy behavior.
Using a mix of wallpaper paste and glue, he’s put them up on storefronts in “once vibrant commercial corridors where many businesses are now closed and boarded,” he says. “In some ways it's a new golden age of street art in San Francisco — we have hundreds of high-traffic locations with inexpensive, temporary surfaces that are just waiting for art.”
“To me, wearing a mask is about caring for others,” he continues. “A mask won't prevent you from getting sick, but if you are sick and don't know it – contagious but not symptomatic – it can help prevent the infection from spreading. I think there's something beautiful about this. We are all in this together, and we need to get out of this together.” fnnch.com
Seattleite Patrick Nguyen started out in portraiture and landscapes before switching focus to menu art and murals, but he’s quickly making up for lost time. With the support of a small team, the artist known as Dozfy has turned out dozens of pieces since the start of the pandemic, from Belltown to Ballard, but his Stay Strong Seattle campaign is perhaps his most prolific.
“We wanted an iconic image to represent Seattle, and the Space Needle was perfect," he says. "It acts like a lighthouse, a beacon of hope.” The heart is a play on that theme of hope, he adds, but it’s also a nod to the significance of social media, a “like” in a time of isolation. They chose a green motif in honor of Seattle’s Emerald City moniker and finished off the piece with a simple message that “works on multiple layers for multiple people, whether it be healthcare workers, people staying at home, or the food industry,” he says.
The first one went up on a boarded-up pizza shop in Belltown, and the imagery could soon be spotted at bars, restaurants, barbershops, upscale furniture chains, and hostels across the city. “We're all suffering in some way, some form, because we're trying to do something for the greater good of everyone," Nguyen told Seattle Refined. “We're all in it together, and hopefully, this art just cements that." dozfy.net