Washington, D.C., isn’t short on street murals. Marilyn Monroe’s visage graces Woodley Park. Bright swirls of paint pop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, and a giant man with a rooster head looms over H Street NE.
While they’re all well worth seeing, it’s no longer necessary to go to the District to get your mural fix: They’ve gone suburban. Large-scale paintings are encouraged, and sometimes even funded, by local governments, businesses and citizens.
These community-driven murals often serve the same purpose as more traditional public art (bronze statues, stately fountains and the like). Their presence can contribute to economic development by luring new residents or businesses to previously not-so-pretty areas.
Pedestrians are drawn to murals and other outdoor art projects, too, according to a 2011 study by the American Planning Association.
So what are you waiting for? Here’s where to spot some of the best murals on the suburban street art circuit.
Bethesda and Silver Spring Metro Stations
The Wisconsin Avenue pedestrian tunnel at the Bethesda Metro station got a face-lift in 2012. “It was dark and dingy with poor lighting,” says Stephanie Coppula, director of marketing and communications for Bethesda Urban Partnership. Funded entirely through donations from the public, “Tunnel Vision” now greets commuters with 12 8-foot wide paintings, photographs and digital images. That’s “Rainbow Pulse,” a psychedelic digital print by Bethesda-based artist Richard Dana, on the far left in the photo above.
The Georgia Avenue pedestrian tunnel leading to the Silver Spring Metro station also got a makeover, in 2006, thanks to the “Silver Pass” project. Prompted by the community organization Arts on the Block, the city provided $5,000; a fundraiser held at Jackie’s Restaurant brought in enough additional money to hire renowned D.C.-based muralist Byron Peck. He led a group of 24 teenagers to create a 200-foot-long transit-themed work composed of four mosaic panels and 800 square feet of painted space.
Mural art in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood has taken on a life of its own. “They’ve been going up so quickly,” says Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Alexandria Office of the Arts’ Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities department. “It’s a very entrepreneurial approach,” Ruggiero says, meaning many of the works go up without city approval. Some murals have had official support, such as the human rights-themed work on the Mount Vernon Recreation Center’s gym (2701 Commonwealth Ave.). Kids helped local artists paint it during a 2010 art festival. It was meant to be temporary, but citizens loved it so much they petitioned to keep it.
Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Border
“Turning Point,” which adorns the wall at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Piney Branch Road, proves that murals can transform and even unite a neighborhood. “It was really unpleasant to drive by there,” says Jan Goldstein, executive director of Arts on the Block, which partnered with Maryland Multicultural Youth Centers to complete the $85,000 work in 2008. (George Soros’ Open Society Foundations pitched in some funds.) “It was a really wild and amazing project,” Goldstein says, with members of rival gangs working together and a security guard on-site making sure the work in progress didn’t get tagged. “I definitely think it’s helped change the area,” Goldstein says.
National Harbor is a veritable outdoor museum. Developer Milt Peterson was determined that the Maryland multi-use complex be beautiful as well as functional. National Harbor’s grandest piece, “Chesapeake Journey,” comes from D.C.’s Steven Weitzman. His 1,680-square-foot tile sidewalk mural awaits visitors at the intersection of American Way and Waterfront Street. The installment incorporates dozens of other elements from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. history. You may need to visit a few times to spot them all.
Gateway Arts District
Rhode Island Avenue (aka U.S. Route 1) wasn’t always the most scenic of routes. Four Maryland communities — Brentwood, North Brentwood, Mount Rainier and Hyattsville — changed that last year by commissioning 19 murals on or near the once-blighted motorway, in the area known as the Gateway Arts District. And they did it on “an impossibly small budget,” says Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation. A jury-selected pool of eight muralists divvied up $10,000 in public funding (sometimes supplemented by the owners of the properties getting a mural). One of Eisenberg’s favorites is a painting of an eagle and an American flag, on a wall of an auto mechanic’s shop at 4728 Rhode Island Ave. in Hyattsville. “You can see the thread count on a very dynamic flag, it’s that detailed,” he says. Another mural is eye-catching in a very different way: It depicts a kitten and puppy nuzzling in a hot-pink chair. See it at Mount Rainier pet spa Paws of Enchantment (3415 Perry St.).
Street art may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the capital of Virginia. So clearly you’re unaware of the Richmond Mural Project. Run by Art Whino, a contemporary gallery that works out of National Harbor, Md., the annual project spans two weeks, during which muralists from around the world will paint 20 murals throughout the city. This year’s festival runs from June 16 to 27. To fund the event, Art Whino has turned to Kickstarter, where it hopes to crowdsource $6,000 to help cover 2014’s expenses. The campaign ends April 11.