Michael Kirby and three other paint-spattered artists sat cross-legged in an iron-fenced parking lot next to the old intelligence agency building, the drab almost windowless walls of the former high-security site behind them.
Two outside walls were no longer blank: On one side, artists on this recent day had dumped more than 100 gallons of bright paint — SPLAT! — down the front of the building.
On another, there was a five-story-tall mural, with two figures in lederhosen grappling, little cartoon lightning bolts coming out of one of their mouths. One had a gleaming gold dinosaur skull for its head. The other might be a sock monkey, or, possibly, a gray, heavily tattooed, mustachioed little man in a ski mask.
So, yeah: It’s no longer part of what used to house the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Now it’s art.
The building, once home to top-secret CIA programs, is empty, except for cables hanging from the ceiling. “Zombie paradise,” said Kirby, who peeked through a doorway as demolition workers came out.
A public art project kicked off recently in the area around the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, which is in the midst of a massive redevelopment — from a place by turns seedy, industrial and forbidding into a beautiful waterfront neighborhood.
The Defense Mapping Agency moved to a secure location on a military base. The Navy shuttered the buildings where it made boilers and anchors. The strip clubs buttoned up and left.
New apartment towers, the U.S. Transportation Department and Nationals Park rose up. Now about one-third built out, with construction cranes all about, it’s a funny place, with bleak vacant lots, mountains of dirt and a water treatment plant, as well as lovely parks, expensive homes and unexpected bright spots: a skating rink glowing at night, bright kayaks bobbing along the river, a trapeze school and one of the city’s buzziest bars.
Art Yards, an “evolving canvas” of a project that will stretch to mid-December, happened kind of by chance, with D.C. street artist Kelly Towles pitching an ambitious plan that included inviting artists from across the country to try to shake things up. Both the developer and the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District have been interested in promoting “temporary urbanism,” with pop-ups like the makeshift bar area outside the ballpark to fill in empty spaces.
On a recent weekend, DJs spun at a silent disco inside one soon-to-be-filled space, with dancers choosing channels on their headphones.
The Art Yards project is focused on the building across from the ballpark, a monolithic, chalky grayish block that artists decided was a perfect blank canvas. Dabs Myla, the combined name used by two Australian artists,who create a world full of fat, doughy letters, wide-eyed and cheeky spray-paint cans, hot dogs, foxes and other cheerful characters, painted a giant bat on the south wall.
“Its head is going to be two or three stories tall,” said Myla, the female half of the Losa Angeles-based pair. “Just the scale of that, we thought that would be fun.”
In mid-December, several other artists will project their video creations along one wall.
Meanwhile, for a few weeks, Baltimore muralists Kirby, Shawn James, Brenna Tessier and Quentin Gibeau are painting sea creatures and a castle on the pavement with acrylic paint.
Eventually, the painting will become sort of a 3-D scene, with Kirby using some tricks learned from the theater to change people’s perspectives.
On Saturday and Sunday, the parking-lot mural will open to the public, with people invited to come into the piece as well as pick up pastels, choose an empty grid and create their own art.
“The thrill of doing public art is seeing the audience interact with the piece,” Kirby said. “Public art — it’s just thrown at you. . . . There’s an instant reaction.”
And so people walk by, on their way to Metro, on their way to lunch, on their way for coffee to shake off the mid-afternoons. Some stare. Some shout through the fences to the artists or flash a thumbs up.
A man pushing a stroller stopped to look at one mural, a collaboration by Towles, Jasper Wong and others from Hawaii. “I’m trying to shield the baby from it,” he joked.
Emily Howard, who works at the Transportation Department on Fridays, was craning to see it better. “Um . . .” she considered. “It looks like a dinosaur eating an alien? I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.
“It’s cool,” she added. “I’m all for it!” She squinted, trying to see whether the alien was definitely in trouble. “I can’t tell if the dinosaur has it, or if he is maybe, like, singing to the alien.”
Towles has been enjoying watching people try to figure out what he describes as two characters playing cat’s cradle. “It’s fun. No one can put their finger on what’s going on. I love that aspect of it.”
Apparently, people in Washington are so used to being shut out of so many Important Secret Buildings that they like the idea of messing with one, turning it into something creative and if not beautiful, well, at least thought-provoking.
“I like working in an abandoned spot like this,” Gibeau said. It was so empty. Now even just the music from their boombox as they work — Johnny Cash and David Bowie and Miles Davis — bouncing off nearby office buildings is changing the space.
Kirby is hoping that some of the zombies inside will come out at some point.
The works will be on display all winter.
The building will be destroyed.
The artists — used to the ephemeral nature of street art, which could be whitewashed the next day — don’t mind.
“It’s a play on that whole history in the art world of conservation and preservation,” Kirby said. “This is the complete opposite.”
“If they blew it up with dynamite, I would be so stoked,” Towles said.
Kirby had the same reaction. He wants to drive the wrecking ball or, if there’s TNT involved, he said, “I want to push the button."