If the District’s walls could talk, Perry Frank would be their longtime confidante.
For nearly 20 years, she has been documenting the murals painted on buildings around the District, which tell stories of the city’s past and present in bold, brilliant paint strokes. From larger-than-life renderings of icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Duke Ellington to montages of ordinary people engaged in community activism, gentrification, immigration and music, Frank says each one has a tale to tell.
A cultural historian and longtime mural admirer, Frank in 1997 founded DC Murals, an organization dedicated to documenting the images many people walk by each day without noticing, and memorializing those that have been covered up or lost to the wrecking ball. Now, she is working on a coffee-table book of the city’s street art and the civic role it plays.
“It’s long been known that when a neighborhood is coming up, the first thing that signals that is murals,” said Frank, who first noticed them when she moved to the District in 1973. “There wasn’t a lot of information . . . no one really knew much about them.”
The first outdoor mural in the city went up about 1970 on the Howard University campus, inspired by a well-known late 1960s Chicago mural, “Wall of Respect,” depicting African American heroes of the civil rights movement.
Appearing in low-income and gentrifying neighborhoods across the city’s four quadrants, many are the result of collaborations between community leaders and local kids with spray cans. Instead of illegally emblazoning their tags onto blank walls, young people were encouraged to put their skills to legal use.
Since 2007, a city-sponsored organization called Murals DC has commissioned more than 50 murals on blighted walls; others are funded directly by the Commission on the Arts and Humanities or commissioned by private owners or corporate entities. Creating a mural can cost from a couple of hundred dollars to tens of thousands; at least one — “Crossroads,” a three-panel mural along Metro’s Red Line — cost over $100,000, Frank said. She estimates that more than 1,000 have been painted in the District, with 600 still standing.
From medieval Europe, where churches’ stained-glass windows reflected biblical stories to the 1930s, when Works Progress Administration murals depicted the efforts of Depression-era workers across the United States, the subject of murals is often linked to the lives of the people whose neighborhoods they adorn.
Brightly colored rowhouses in “Community,” a playground mural in Shaw, mirror the homes across the street; a figure on a unicycle in the forefront is a nod to the city’s first bicycle club, located nearby during the 19th century.
“These murals, in a lot of cases, invoke a lot of research on the part of the artists to uncover what the story was,” Frank said, pointing at the mural by Anne Marchand, which also shows a horse and buggy, a 1940s-style automobile and a streetcar. “The streetcar lines were very important because they were the first methods of commute, and it enabled Washington to expand so that people could get to work in the federal city downtown.”
A few blocks away, “Around the World” by Richard Colman decorates the side of a chess club with a man playing checkers against an oriole, a nod to the Baltimore mascot. Recording the images can be daunting work, especially as the urban renewal of recent years has put some in jeopardy.
“While there are a lot of laws about historic preservation and facades, there is nothing whatsoever about the murals,” Frank said. A portrait of Frederick Douglass, for example, which long adorned a building near Union Station, was covered up by new construction several years ago with no attempt to incorporate it, which irked Frank. “Why couldn’t they have made it glass, so the Frederick Douglass could show?”
On the other hand, some have been lovingly restored, such as “Un Pueblo,” a multistory 1977 work by Carlos Salazar that she said is the city’s oldest still standing.
“Adams Morgan was a mecca for immigrants who came from Latin America, from the early ’70s in Chile, and they kept coming,” she said, standing in front of a brightly colored melange of cubism and Latino folk art on a building off Adams Mill Road. She pointed out bankers sitting around a table, dancers embracing, a television apparently spewing something alarming, various dogs and a large ghostlike figure.
“It reflects the worry of the immigrants that gentrification was going to take their homes, and it did indeed take their homes,” Frank said. Gesturing at the figure of a blond woman looking out of a window, she said: “This is a resident who is looking with a baleful eye . . . at the polyglot scene below; that’s the way I see it.”
Art is, of course, subject to interpretation, but there are certain motifs that recur in D.C. murals, such as subtle references to “the federal city.” A mural depicting a local neighborhood scene may tuck a tiny Capitol or Washington Monument into the background, implying an awareness of the city’s status as capital of the United States but far away in spirit from the daily lives of many residents.
The mural that is Frank’s favorite is unusual in that it is an overt depiction of the federal city: a trompe l’oeil of the U.S. Capitol by Val Lewton on an air shaft tower near Union Station.
The murals also reflect the times in which they were created. A fading graffiti-tag tableau, “Hoodz of Art,” still adorns a building in Shaw that DC Murals spokesman Cory Stowers helped paint in 2006. “When we painted that mural, it was a crack strip,” said Stowers, who lived nearby at the time. “Before the Wonder Bread factory reopened, before the Howard Theater reopened, it was completely drug-infested — a lot of vacant properties, a lot of derelict spaces.”
A more recent piece by Stowers and some colleagues — of Paul Robeson, completed last year in an alley off U Street NW — is interactive, allowing passersby to use their cellphones to connect with clips of Robeson as performer and political activist. Some murals are detachable: A G. Byron Peck portrait of Duke Ellington overlooking U Street NW was painted on a removable panel; it is being restored off-site.
Although some have fallen victim to water damage and age, the murals rarely get vandalized. An exception: A mural of Bill Cosby in an alley off U Street NW had red Xs and an expletive — added since recent sexual-assault allegations.
“Marilyn,” painted in 1981 by John Bailey, was commissioned by a hairstylist who worked in the building below and depicts Monroe with her famous half-mast gaze overlooking the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street NW.
“The murals have to reflect where they are,” she said, adding that the stylist was gay. “It’s in a neighborhood that would be receptive to this kind of vibe. . . . It immediately made a huge hit, and it made a huge imprint on the city — oh my God, this is what contemporary murals can be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story described DC Murals as a nonprofit organization; it is for-profit. The story has been corrected.