Most Washingtonians, whether they know it or not, have seen Byron Peck's artwork.

"Stiletto," a 40-by-40 foot mural by Peck, adorns the side of the City Cafe and looms over drivers and pedestrians at the corner of 22nd and M streets NW. He has done murals for The Bank, 9:30 club, Cities, Cafe Med and Lafayette Center. His painting "Urban Geese" covers the construction fence near Garfinckel's downtown.

Peck, a native of the Washington area, will continue to make his mark on Washington buildings, but not until completion of two gallery shows that are a part of his flourishing studio art career. His surreal portraits are on exhibit this month at the Vorpal Gallery in New York City and will come to Georgetown's Govinda Gallery Sept. 17.

For the gigantic City Cafe mural, Peck and one of the owners, Steven D'Amato, "decided on a combination of references to Washington, its neoclassical architecture, and some suggestions of nightlife," Peck said. The result is a pastiche of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, a cognac glass and a pair of shiny black stiletto heeled shoes, surmounted by neoclassical key molding engraved "The City Cafe."

The mural is prominent enough, and may exist long enough to become a Washington landmark itself. "The mural is going to be there for a real long time -- long enough for me and everyone else to get sick of it," Peck joked. The Nigerian Embassy, which owns the adjacent lot and uses it for parking, has no plans to develop the property "and the paint is guaranteed to last for 90 to 100 years."

The painting of "Stiletto," Peck's largest mural, created some logistical problems -- and some hazards. To reach the high places, he and an assistant used an old cherry picker that operated with cables.

"We got stuck up there four or five times because the cable would snare up. When the cherry picker had me up there about 30 or 40 feet, just a little wind would really get the thing rocking. It was hard to paint."

Peck endured all this while wearing a sling to protect the shoulder he had injured in a skateboarding accident.

The idea for a mural was Steven D'Amato's. He saw it as a promotion for the City Cafe and as something that appealed to him esthetically. The wall, D'Amato said, "was screaming for a mural. It was completely smooth. It was a beautiful surface to paint on."

D'Amato paid Peck $8,000 for the mural.

D'Amato said patrons of the City Cafe appreciate "Stiletto" and the mural Peck painted on the restaurant's ceiling. But, he said, the project is not completely successful as a promotion because people fail to make the connection between "Stiletto" and the City Cafe.

"We tried to make it {the connection} subtle with the brandy glass. It is subtle. Maybe too subtle. Maybe it should be screaming and yelling."

Peck began painting murals in Richmond as an undergraduate art student at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was short on money, so when a sandwich shop owner in Richmond asked him to paint an exterior wall, he painted a speeding subway train emerging from a tunnel, bursting out from the wall and crashing through a target.

Peck approached that first mural unaware of the difficulties of painting larger images. When he was close enough to the wall to paint, he lost a sense of the mural as a whole.

"I was worried the whole time I was painting it," Peck said.

Peck has since honed his mural "We tried to make it {the connection} subtle with the brandy glass. It is subtle. Maybe too subtle. Maybe it should be screaming and yelling."

-- Steven D'Amato

technique. First he paints a smaller version of a mural, divides that into smaller pieces, then copies it piece by piece onto the wall, so that he is never left trying to consider the whole mural while he is painting it.

The pay for mural work is good, and although the subject matter is often dictated by the patron, "I get to use a lot of the things I have been trying in my paintings and to get an instantaneous reaction to them," Peck said.

While he is eager for more mural work, his recent efforts have been directed toward the gallery shows. Peck's paintings, mostly lifelike portraits of women on surreal backgrounds, are rife with spatial ambiguities that draw the viewer into the painting. The women in the paintings figure so prominently in the foreground that they often seem to stand between the viewer and the canvas.

"Byron is just beginning to hit his stride," said Chris Murray, director of the Govinda Gallery, who has seen Peck's work evolve since they met in 1978. "His work is so full of imagination and his technique is perfect."

For his own part, Peck takes a blithe attitude toward his artistic endeavors. It's the attitude one would expect of someone willing to suspend himself 40 feet in the air to paint a mural, despite serious skateboarding injuries. He cites pop art as the strongest influence on his work, and holds with Andy Warhol's scorn for pretension in art.

"If you take art too seriously," Peck said, "you are a fool."