At first sight, you might call it the Mount Rushmore of Half-Smokes. Or maybe the Four Horsemen of the Chili-pocalypse. Personally, I’ll go with the Ben’s Wall of Fame. Whatever you choose to nickname the new mural that adorns the outside wall of D.C.’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, you have to admit: It’s beautiful.
Portraits of Chuck Brown, Bill Cosby, President Obama and Donnie Simpson now serve as greeters if you find yourself in one of the lines that often snake around the building. The mural is on the east side of the alley that separates the restaurant from the Lincoln Theater, and although it might seem like an obvious fit for Ben’s, the idea was nearly a year in the making.
“It’s looking great. I was worried at first, to be quite honest, because it’s a wall,” said creator Aniekan Udofia, 36, as he put the finishing touches on a piece that features four men who have supported the neighborhood stalwart. “It’s not a flat surface like a canvas or a piece of paper.”
The mural is a tremendous example of what happens when government and nonprofit groups work together. MuralsDC, the city-funded program that provides legal avenues for turning donated wall space into graffiti-inspired works of art, teamed up with Eric B. Ricks after the success they had last year with “Ben Ali’s Alchemy,” a mural on the side of Ben’s Next Door, the sister restaurant to the original. That piece represents the social change that has occurred since Ali opened the eatery in 1958. It planted the seed for the new mural.
Nancee Lyons of the D.C. Department of Public Works said organic growth was vital to the recent project. “Our consultant is Words, Beats and Life, a nonprofit organization that works with youth. They have relationships with people. . . . It just becomes a [matter] of, ‘Hey, maybe we can work together,’ ” she said. “We like to do areas that we know receive a lot of graffiti. . . . Those buildings are important to us.”
Graffiti and other forms of public art play an important history in this city’s art culture. As a kid, riding the Red Line and seeing its glorious views on the way to school, I fell in love with street art. But since the early 1980s, when Cool Disco Dan, the legendary graffiti artist sprayed his unmistakable tag around the District — graffiti has largely lived as a subculture in the shadows.
Finally, people have let it out into the open as a socially acceptable art of letters. It’s incredibly refreshing to see generations coming together and embracing one another other’s different expressive forms to beautify the city and educate people. But at first, it wasn’t easy.
When D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) created MuralsDC in 2007, Dominic Painter, who served as a site manager for the Ben’s project, remembers the friction. “The older guard was a bit taken aback at first. . . . But since 2008, when we did our first official program, everyone’s been won over and understands that this is a specific mission that is worth upholding.”
Public art is vital to any city. Just ask Charles Jean-Pierre, the artist behind the all-acrylic Chuck Brown mural at Sweet Mango in Petworth, who’s been helping Udofia this week. “Street art is definitely an underrated form of art, usually looked down upon. But it’s hard to look down upon street art when you see big murals like this,” Jean-Pierre said.
“How many people actually go into galleries and get to share that experience?” he added. “Anybody that walks down the street, whether they’re old, young, rich, poor — everybody can enjoy this mural and find something where they connect with it.”
There may be more visible murals around the city, but the location of this one is paramount. Ben’s is arguably the important landmark that represents the District’s native culture. Over the past 10 years, it has been ground zero as a window into the gentrification of the city. But long before Obama made an appearance with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the neighborhood spot was serving people like Tonya Garner.
Garner stood outside and marveled at the nearly completed painting on Tuesday. She surveyed it and declared herself a fan. “I prefer for the government money to be spent for a beautiful mural rather than just cleaning up graffiti,” she said. “It’s awesome. I love it.”
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