Walking through the Central Arts District and 600 Arts Block in Saint Petersburg, Florida, is an experience for the senses. Bright textural murals span the walls of bustling cafes, shops, community centers, businesses and art studios. The alleys and abandoned walls in downtown no longer urge walkers to pick up the pace to get back on a Main Street.
Instead people walk slowly, admiring the hidden murals nested between backdoors and meterless parking spaces. It’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago, this same area was in decline with a decaying series of abandoned storefronts and boarded up windows.
Mural culture has thrived nationally and internationally in many cities. Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin and Lisbon are examples of well-known mural destinations. And now, St. Petersburg has joined the ranks.
Beyond aesthetics, murals can help create unifying common grounds for community members. Murals are well-known sources of social justice movements and contentious messages. Today’s contemporary mural movement could still be rooted in Diego Rivera’s post-revolutionary call for public art to be a voice of witness as it pushes to make art accessible. The beauty of murals is that they are public; they belong to everyone.
With the recent completion of the second annual SHINE St. Petersburg Mural Festival, it’s clear that murals have become one of St. Petersburg’s biggest sources of civic pride. The festival, which took place in early September, resulted in more than a dozen vibrant new murals for the city. St. Pete community members, art students and artists were able to meet and collaborate with artists from Hong Kong, Lima, San Francisco and Dortmund — to name a few of the origins of the diverse group of muralists who participated in SHINE.
According to its site, the nonprofit public art project SHINE “illuminates the power of art in public spaces by revitalizing areas, inspiring dialogue, and uniting the St. Petersburg community.” Unity is visibly at the center of this collaboration between community members and artists. SHINE mural initiatives span walls of the touristy arts area and less affluent areas of the city alike.
Community initiatives this year included: a “CLEAN” mural on the side of a laundromat as part of Engage Current’s Laundry Project, which turns laundromats into community centers of hope, and a series of murals that high schools painted along the span of the Pinellas County trail.
During the festival, St. Petersburg also hosted its first Secret Walls. The live art event, known as “the ‘Fight Club’ of the art scene,” according to its site, brought together a mix of local and visiting muralists for a timed mural competition at the Museum of Fine Arts. The event, which was free and open to all, attracted hundreds of families and art enthusiasts.
This year SHINE culminated in a street festival with live music, food trucks and live art. Festivals like SHINE are testament to one of the city’s popular taglines: “Art shines here.” Murals that range in subject and location continue to pop up all over the city. The larger than life images inspire community members to take pride in their city and to look up from their screens and busy days to experience the art around them.