Washington’s murals bring art outside for everyone to see

September 6, 2013

When you think of art, you might think of a cold, quiet, marble-floored museum where gold-framed paintings created by people who lived a long time ago hang on the walls. But art comes in many other forms. Art is alive and happening today, right now, right here in the middle of this loud, often dirty, sometimes crowded city.

“Aniekan is painting this work because he wants people to engage,” or talk, said Mazi Mutafa, who was watching artist Aniekan (sounds like Ah-NEE-ah-khan) Udofia spray purple paint out of a can onto a brick wall overlooking a parking lot on Florida Avenue in Northwest Washington.

Udofia stood in a cherry picker, which is a metal bin attached to a motorized arm that could lift him up and down so he could reach his art, four stories high. He had sketched, or drawn, on the wall earlier, and now he was filling in his creation with bright colors.

“All I want people to do is stop and look at it,” said Mutafa, gazing at the picture of a very strong, confident woman in a colorful dress of purple, green and blue, holding an oversize orange pencil with two hands. “Wake up out of your slumber and look at it,” he said of the wall. “It’s less about what you think. It’s more that you think.”

Positive space

Mutafa and Udofia are part of MuralsDC, an organization started in 2007 that is dedicated to what is called public art — that’s art outside on walls or in parks that everyone can look at as they walk by. MuralsDC replaces illegal graffiti, which is done without the permission of neighbors and building owners, with legal art that is created with approval.

There are 43 murals like Udofia’s in the city because of MuralsDC, and Udofia’s newest work, which took him about a week to complete, is the organization’s first of six murals that are scheduled to be painted in the next month. (Udofia is well known for his mural on the wall of the Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant in Northwest. The painting includes a picture of President Obama.) This week, artists Daniel Roncesvalles and Justin Poppe will start a new mural at 2921 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. Another mural by artist Cecilia Lueza will take shape soon at Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School at 1375 Missouri Avenue in Northwest.

“I like to finish the work, step back and see people’s reaction,” Udofia, 37, said while taking a break from his work at 312 Florida Avenue Northwest. His newest mural is part of a series, or group of paintings with a common theme, called “Reloaded.”

“It’s supposed to inspire creativity,” Udofia said, looking at the woman on the wall. “Her pencil is her weapon of choice.” According to Udofia, she is meant to inspire people to be as confident as she is in finding their own creative voices.

The bright colors Udofia chose for her dress and background are to draw in people walking by and get them thinking. “A group of people [could] come and see this mural and like it for 50 different reasons,” he said.

Someone may like the way she holds her head high. Someone may like the half-circles behind her that look like butterfly wings. Someone else may like the large pencil because it symbolizes the power of words.

“The main message is this was blank and now [art is] here, and people can stop and intersect with it, so this area becomes a positive place,” Udofia said.

Young artist

Udofia has been an artist since he was a kid in Washington, growing up on Monroe Street in Northwest with two siblings.

“My mom used to give us coloring books,” he said. “We used to color a lot, which turned into drawing a lot. I didn’t know what was going on in terms of being an artist. It was just fun.”

His parents were from Nigeria, a country in West Africa, and when he was 7 years old, he moved there. As a teenager, he started drawing superheroes.

“I was always interested in Superman bursting out of the page,” he said. He even made money from his talent at a young age, drawing signs for local barber shops in Nigeria.

When he was 19, he returned to the United States to live with his aunt in Washington, where he started working three jobs: at a moving company in the morning, at a CVS drugstore in the afternoon and at an office as a security guard. But he still wanted to be an artist, so on his days off he would take the bus to New York City and walk into magazine offices unannounced to show them his work in hopes that they would hire him. Some of them did.

In 2001, he was asked to paint his first mural in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. He has painted about 12 murals, most of them in the city.

Inspiration

Now, as a full-time artist, Udofia’s advice to young artists is simple: Keep a sketchbook. “Drawing is the foundation,” he said. “You never know where you’re going to find your next inspiration. Look, get ideas and you create a story.”

It took Udofia about 30 hours to paint the woman in purple with the pencil, using about 30 cans of paint. He worked fast, often late into the night.

“I want people to be inspired,” he said, standing in front of his newest creation. “I want this to be a meeting point where people who have never met each other start discussing it. Good art is supposed to bring people together, so I’m hoping that this does that.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin

For more information on murals in Washington, go to www.muralsdcproject.com. Always ask a parent before going online.

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