You are on Week Two of being cooped up and working at home in your D.C. apartment. Or is it Week Three? Who knows anymore. The coronavirus pandemic has closed down restaurants, public spaces and stores, and residents are being encouraged to isolate themselves as much as they can. The only escape some have from their home these days is a walk around the neighborhood.
If you want to keep learning about the city while keeping your distance, find public art. The murals, graffiti art and mosaics take you into neighborhoods you’ve never visited, where each piece of art tells a local story.
Hungry to learn more about my own city of Washington, I set out to explore the off-the-beaten-path murals and the neighborhoods they color. The well-known “Love” mural, in Blagden Alley, and the giant depiction of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the side of a rowhouse on U Street NW, probably make regular appearances in your Instagram feed, drawing crowds of tourists and locals alike, but they’re only two within a larger body of work that covers every quadrant of this city.
As I began my research, DC Murals — an organization that maps the public art here — became a leading resource. Through DC Murals, I learned there’s a hierarchy of public art. Mapping out my route, I intentionally avoided branded works like the one near Howard Theatre that was backed by beer maker Stella Artois. Murals that “artwash” — a term referring to public art funded by a business improvement district with the sole goal of encouraging development, like many of NoMa’s murals — didn’t dominate the list. My murals needed to be outside and accessible to all.
I set out on foot and bike. Here are eight of the gems I discovered, along with location information and a bit of history.
1. “Deeply Rooted” by Maxx Moses
2314 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Growing up in New York City, Maxx Moses’s mother worked hard to expose him to culture. As they rode the subway, the graffiti art that Maxx saw led to what he calls his “spiritual awakening.” Now based in San Diego, Moses was hiking Machu Picchu when a nonprofit called Words, Beats & Life commissioned him to create a mural on the side of Thai Orchid’s Kitchen, a popular restaurant in the Southeast Washington neighborhood of Fairlawn.
Colorfully woven, contrasting scenes are united — e.g., the mountains of Machu Picchu with a ship in a bottle — leaving interpretation up to the passerby’s imagination. “Your perspective is a perspective, and that’s valid,” Moses says.
2. Car mural by Hamilton Glass
1708 Good Hope Rd. SE
Born in Philadelphia, Hamilton Glass lives in Richmond, where he helped start the public art movement in the Virginia capital. Glass visited the District and painted on the wall of Murphy’s Auto in 2014. Creating the piece in two phases, he started with the car, representing the fast pace of the city. At the request of the business’s owner, he added the checkered flag. As for his goal, Glass said the owner wanted a piece that the neighborhood could look at and enjoy; vibrantly red, this mural lives up to that goal.
3. MLK Jr. portrait by Luis Peralta Del Valle
Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE
Murals honoring Martin Luther King Jr. aren’t uncommon in Southeast Washington, but the newest one is accompanied by one of the civil rights pioneer’s quotes: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The artist, Luis Peralta Del Valle, lives a few blocks from the work. A native Washingtonian, Del Valle wanted to paint a piece to inspire positivity in the neighborhood. He says: “Martin Luther King Jr. was nonviolent all the way, no matter how he was treated. That shows strength as a person.”
His hope is that this piece of art will pass on that strength for as long as it’s up. Having already lost 14 murals to development, Del Valle painted this one on its own mounted panel, to be mobile and extend its life.
4. “Many Voices, Many Beats, One City” by Cory Stowers, Maria Miller, Nessar Jahanbin, Ernesto Zelaya and Eric B. Ricks
Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Howard Road SE
If there’s one thing to know about Anacostia, it’s that it’s the birthplace of go-go music, a popular subgenre of funk. The godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, and several other go-go icons, like Big House and Little Benny, are memorialized in “Many Voices, Many Beats, One City.”
Originally, acclaimed local street artist Cory Stowers, of Art B.L.O.C. D.C., was commissioned to create a piece at this intersection in 2008. After eight years of wear and tear on the project, Stowers came back with other artists to redo it. This time, they painted the larger-than-life go-go fliers and musicians that you see today, reinforcing the neighborhood’s identity.
5. “Love Supreme,” a.k.a. the Friendly Food Market mural, by Eric B. Ricks
1399 Half St. SW
A tiny corner store called Friendly Food Market is one of the most photographed bodegas in the city thanks to the bright mural that wraps around the building. The vibrant artwork is from Eric B. Ricks, who immigrated to the area from Liberia as a teenager.
The piece, “Love Supreme,” involves several elements. A black-and-white swirl (out of view above) representing the neighborhood’s racial divide turns into vibrant colors. There’s a circular mandala symbol, standing for the community’s spiritual cleansing — a call to remember the past, respect the present and hope for the future. The girl represents all of us, he says, and the lotus flower stands for the beauty that arises out of mud, a charge Ricks hopes defines the neighborhood. There’s a duck (out of view above) and a window Ricks calls the “delusion of grandeur,” depicting a girl with a Nationals ticket peeking from her front pocket. While she slips out to the store, the Nationals win the World Series — an amusing vision given the Nationals’ real-life World Series win this year. These elements together form a single piece, bringing a gallery to the people, making art accessible to all.
6. Mosaic murals of child and bird, a collaboration by G. Byron Peck and Cheryl Foster
820 Half St. SW
If you can see past the historical Randall School, a boarded-up building that’s slated for redevelopment, walk to the back. You’ll find a collaboration piece between two acclaimed artists, G. Byron Peck and Cheryl Foster. Foster is responsible for the mosaics, which was a new trend in public art when she created the piece in 2002. Peck’s portion represents childlike whimsy, with a youngster swimming in water with a lotus flower nearby.
7. “Sasha’s Groove” by Michael Hammond
745 Eighth St. SE
On the wall outside of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a social services organization, is a mural painted by Silver Spring, Md.-raised artist Michael Hammond. As part of the D.C. Mural Program, Hammond painted a scene meant to bring good energy to the area. He depicted the neighborhood using a go-go music scene, people dancing in front of Capitol Hill rowhouses, and iconic D.C. monuments. This piece is smaller than Hammond’s other work around the city but now an integral part of Barracks Row.
8. The Fridge murals, in an alley in Southeast
Between Eighth and Ninth streets SE, and G and E streets SE
At the alley’s entrance is a partially restored Coca-Cola mural and a rainbow painting, but continuing your walk will reveal a hidden world of public art. Within the alley is the Fridge, a small gallery that curates the alley’s murals. Fridge owner Alex Goldstein asks each visiting artist showcased inside his gallery to also curate a piece painted outside. Since it opened in 2009, more than 100 murals and graffiti pieces have brightened the outdoor walls here. The longest-surviving piece is what Goldstein calls “Tightie Whities,” a character in underwear painted in 2012. The newest piece will go up in January.
There are two pieces on the Fridge’s side outdoor walls. The first is from Swiss graffiti artist Art of Bust of a blonde with bubble graffiti on her face. The second is Martin Swift’s “Limestone of Lost Legacies,” memorializing five D.C. teens who died from gun violence. Flanking this piece is a pink-and-blue mural by Japanese artist MOYA. Goldstein noted that the alley is remarkably international.
From H Street NE to Eckington, Langdon to Columbia Heights, there are more neighborhoods with public art to explore, each one telling the city’s secrets through its art. Across from the Fridge, still in the alley, is a hidden rooftop gin garden called the Betsy, named after the owner’s chicken. It’s a neighborhood spot few know about. Over a glass of gin, I daydream of my next mural adventures.