It has long been an act of rebels, activists and, indeed, criminals to plaster the walls of a city with a can of spray paint. And it remains the pursuit of outsiders who do their work out of sight or in the dead of night.
Even for those who made a name for themselves in street art, such as Britain’s mischievous and scathing graffiti legend Banksy, the reward has often been to see one’s work quickly scrubbed or painted over by authorities.
Locally, there is an aggressive new commercial campaign to promote street artists and muralists. One painted a 65-foot portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with a silhouette of his wife, Zelda, on the side of an apartment building. Another spray-painted an abstract array of bright polka dots and stripes on a brick wall in Rosslyn. A third blanketed the wall of a parking garage at the National Cancer Institute with images of the United States and Native Americans.
A group of painters is making over drab corners of the Washington area with large-scale murals, each bringing their own talent and inspiration to a genre popularized in the United States by graffiti artists. But all the new pieces share the same origin: the anonymous gray office building on Willard Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md.
This is the home of the JBG Cos., owner of the Washington area’s largest portfolio of commercial real estate and, now, commissioner of more than two dozen murals in the neighborhoods where the company is investing.
JBG’s mural project — aimed at improving parking ramps, vacant lots, loading docks and blank facades — is part of a larger strategy to add character to the streetscape around the company’s office buildings, apartment buildings and shopping centers.
“I think one of the things that we have really tried to do here is create a culture where there is really a commitment to creativity,” JBG partner Brian P. Coulter said. “We have an opportunity on a pretty broad landscape to impact what the environment in an area is going to be like. We can ask ourselves – what do we want this place to feel like where we have a project going
Artists behind the work said JBG offered the creative freedom to produce what they wanted, visible platforms for their work and paychecks that, in some cases, were badly needed.
“I asked them to give me a little list of what they wanted to be in the mural, and I presented it in the style that I have,” said Anna Rose Soevik, a Bethesda artist who did the work featuring Fitzgerald on a JBG apartment building in the Twinbrook section of Rockville. “I feel so grateful to have done it.”
Murals and street art gained prominence in cities as forms of advocacy and protest. Historians have traced the origins of American graffiti art to inner Philadelphia in the 1960s, and it later earned notoriety on New York City subways.
A lot of contemporary murals are backed by arts groups, nonprofit organizations or individual property owners. JBG’s use of the form for “placemaking” raised questions among some artists and university art professors about what role the artists’ work played in the company’s business, particularly in a region increasingly divided over speedy development.
Is JBG’s art partly branding? Is it organic or corporate? Or both?
“The murals certainly will contribute toward the neighborhood,” said G. James Daichendt, who studies street art as dean of arts and humanities at San Diego’s Point Loma Nazarene University.
Daichendt said there was a spectrum of mural work from surface-level decoration to deep, meaningful contributions that reference important aspects of the community. JBG is far from alone in using murals for business purposes; Justin Bieber revealed a new song with a mural on Rhode Island Avenue NE, and last summer the Discovery Channel covered the side of its Silver Spring
building to promote Shark Week.
“Great public art will engage the neighborhood and be a nexus for conversation,” Daichendt said. “It remains to be seen whether these murals will function in this manner.”
Over the course of its 55 years in business, JBG has won the backing of Ivy League endowment managers and wealthy foreign investors, raising a series of real estate funds that allowed it to acquire more than $10 billion worth of hotels, shopping centers and office and apartment buildings, all of which are in or around the Capital Beltway.
JBG is the blue whale of Washington real estate firms. Its 23.6 million square feet of properties are more than any other company’s Washington holdings. The portfolio includes L’Enfant Plaza, the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, a portion of the Southwest Waterfront and large stakes in Rosslyn, U Street, Potomac Yard, Rockville, Tysons Corner and a dozen other neighborhoods.
JBG also sometimes makes large real estate sales and has been considering some recently.
The mural project has resulted in four stories of painted flowers on the side of a Rockville office building and three fanciful bugs on the side of a JBG apartment building near U Street. A smiling crocodile with a butterfly on its nose adorns a parking ramp at one of JBG’s offices.
The artists include locals and out-of-towners from as far away as Poland and Australia, most of whom had done work in galleries, commercial spaces or elsewhere. In all, there are 29 pieces completed, planned or underway.
The role of murals has grown in the local landscape as graffiti, tagging and other types of street art moved comfortably into the mainstream. The scene is led by prolific muralist G. Byron Peck, who painted Duke Ellington’s portrait on U Street. Others added Marion Barry and Marilyn Monroe. Bill Cosby’s mug still graces the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl. MuralsDC, an initiative
by the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities and the nonprofit group Words Beats & Life, has led to the creation of more than 50 murals in the city since 2007, including an 80-foot-high piece dedicated to senior citizens on 15th Street NW.
Today, JBG has built more high-end condominiums and apartments in Shaw and U Street than any other company. Among the artists it hired to work in the area are Brandon Hill and Peter Chang of No Kings Collective who, as with many working artists, do a variety of work spanning art galleries and more commercial endeavors for events, restaurants and real estate companies.
Chang praised the company for giving artists wide creative leeway and for sponsoring events such as the D.C. Funk Parade. JBG also built artists studios into the Atlantic Plumbing condo building at Eighth and V streets, where Chang and Hill recently adorned part of the parking garage with a new piece.
“The thing about JBG is they’re great because they give a lot of artistic freedom. They’re not so picky. When they choose artists or talk to artists, they already have confidence in them and their skills and abilities,” Chang said. “For a development company, they are very forward-thinking, and they are very in tune with the local art scene.”
Dual role of the pieces
University art professors who reviewed some of the work commissioned by JBG praised the artists and their pieces, but some suggested that JBG was purposefully selecting artists with optimistic or abstract styles for commercial purposes. Among the many symbols represented in Soevik’s Rockville work is the lion that serves as JBG’s logo.
“When you put something large-scale in the public domain, I think the most exciting potential is the discourse associated with that work . . . as opposed to being just another Urban Outfitters billboard,” said Elizaveta Meksin, an artist and associate professor of visual art at Columbia University in New York. “There are so many interesting artists who work in the public
domain and do installations that have a message and have some sort of a critical approach or message. And, obviously, we are not seeing this company support that kind of work.”
“On the one hand, I think it is great to have large-scale paintings in the public domain,” she added. “On the other hand, I definitely don’t think they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They definitely have a very specific agenda, and they have made that clear in the works they have chosen.”
Daichendt agreed on the dual role of the pieces.
“They are decorative and add depth and interest to otherwise bland walls,” he said. “However, they will also function as a solid marketing tactic.”
Robin Mosle, JBG executive vice president, said the murals were part of the company’s commitment to the neighborhoods in which it invests. She said JBG often works with neighborhood leaders to shape and plan the work.
“We have a responsibility to blend into the fabric of the community,” Mosle said. “We have a lot of places where we have blank walls. Could we give this gift to our communities and better engage with our communities?”
One of the JBG artists, muralist and activist Gregg Deal, said he was somewhat divided. Deal, a Native American, has been a vocal and persistent advocate on behalf of indigenous people, including when he dressed as a stereotypical Native American so he could document the reactions of passersby and appeared on the Daily Show to confront Redskins fans about the team’s
“There are questions about gentrification and the role of beautifying places,” Deal said. “There’s a draw to creating murals and spaces that are sexy to millennials that want to buy into a growing real estate neighborhood that is predominantly poor or inner city or minority or whatever term you want to use.”
Deal said he felt good about his work with JBG, which hired him to adorn a wall on the campus of the National Cancer Institute. Shortly before he began, his father had died of colon cancer.
“A part of me felt that it was serendipitous to be doing this piece near the cancer institute while my dad was going through all this,” Deal said. “I love doing large mural pieces. It’s just a lot of fun. But to do something that was along the lines of what he was going through, it was healing.”
Another academic, Ronit Eisenbach, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, praised the work’s positive vibes and its ability to brighten the day of neighbors and passersby.
“I think JBG as an organization has really made it a priority to do good work. So it’s absolutely in their interest to make the communities that they are beginning work in to increase the value of those neighborhoods in multiple ways – economic value, social value, helping to make people feel safe,” she said. “The quality of the murals is really good. They are hiring people
from all over to do these. And a lot of the walls they have chosen are walls that have been tagged.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz