News Column

Murals: Media Marketing Writ Large

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Businesses once decorated their buildings with their names in block letters.

A bit boring, perhaps, but they served the purpose - massive advertisements, landmarks often visible from blocks away.

But today's businesses are adding another element to their facades - creativity.

In Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District, law office now has an eagle soaring across its brick facade. At a multitenant building, a two-story pink monster seems ready to reach out its red-painted talons to grab a passerby. A seven-story building showcases two Kansas City products made nearby with a steaming cup of Roasterie coffee and a chilled bottle of Boulevard beer. A measuring tape swirls across the side of a men's clothing store.

And some of the once-faded signs? They've been repainted to become part of a building's new brand.

"You see these ghost images that were part of the urban environment ... and we erased it," said John O'Brien, owner-director of the Dolphin gallery in the West Bottoms. "Somehow it stopped, but everything comes back around."

One city that has gone all-out for murals - and has seen commercial, tourism and community benefits - is Philadelphia.

The murals are a community effort, so they bring neighborhoods together in the planning stages. Afterwards, residents tend to see their neighborhoods differently, as do developers, and the murals are often catalysts for economic development.

They also cut down on graffiti. Indeed, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program started as a graffiti abatement program in 1984 and evolved into a pro-arts program. More than 3,600 murals have since been created, and about half remain. Some were painted over with new works, and others have made way for redevelopment.

Amy Johnston, information and events specialist for the program, said murals could say much about a neighborhood and the people who lived and worked there.

"We have found the process of creating a mural together connects people whose paths might not otherwise meet," Johnston said. "A sort of network forms around the mural, and the positive experience of working together to create a mural helps them imagine other things. Sometimes the story is just beginning when the mural is completed. Art ignites change."

For individual business, murals also can be a way to get their information out in a different way, Johnston said.

But outdoor murals don't come cheap, with Philadelphia putting many of its larger pieces around $25,000. Along with paying for an artist to design and paint the wall, there are other costs involved. The wall must be professionally cleaned. Mortar joints of brick buildings may need tuck-pointing. Then the wall often will need two coats of sealer, then gallons and gallons of paint for the mural. Then the artwork - exposed to elements year-round - has to be maintained.

Dawn Taylor, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Kansas City, said businesses should consider hiring artists who have an eye for large-scale pieces and experience in painting murals.

Other decisions will include: Where is it going to go? What artist and what style? What is the goal in displaying the piece? Is it going to be used to build the company's brand? Is it going to offend someone? How long is it going to be there? Who is going to view the piece? Who owns the copyright? How is it going to be maintained?

"You own a pretty significant artwork, and you have to take care of it," said Porter Ameill, director and public art administrator for the Municipal Art Commission at City Hall.

Google Fiber's community focus is enforced in the decor of its new showroom in Kansas City - from the shuttlecock chandeliers that are a nod to the outdoor sculptures at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to a mural that wraps around the front of its "Fiber Space Hospitality" stand.

Lee's Summit, Mo., artist Alexander Austin worked with Google on a mostly black-and-white design that incorporates Kansas City's history and its Google future. A saxophone blows out shuttlecocks, along with a Kansas City Star business page highlighting Silicon Prairie. Sporting Kansas City, Union Station, a train engine and a fountain are included, as well as a Google fiber running from one end of the mural to the other.

Jenna Wandres, a spokeswoman for Google, said, "Kansas City has such a vibrant culture, and Alexander's mural brings that local flair into our Fiber Space."

A mentor of Austin's, a professional billboard artist, taught him lettering and signage for three years. Austin combined those techniques with his passion for drawing. After moving to Kansas City in 1987, he began riding the city bus, looking for abandoned buildings that might serve as his canvas. He would make a sketch, and then get permission from the property owner. A couple of years later, he started getting commissions from Kansas City property owners, and then public projects such as the Kansas City Zoo. He received a check in four figures for the Google mural.

"I've always just loved to do the large work. Black and white was my trademark," Austin said. "I didn't need a lot of brushes or a lot of money. Just black and white paint, and I started out with stick and a rag. I don't make a lot, but I don't take anything for granted. It's been a blessing."

A giant mural of a basketball player, midair after reverse-slamming a ball into a basket, covered the south facade of a downtown Kansas City building for years. It served as a massive advertisement for Reebok, and some saw it as artwork. It later served as inspiration for a mural of an eagle spanning the south side of a Crossroads law office.

"I would look at that basketball mural and say, 'Someone has spent some ... money to make this beautiful thing, to decorate that environment and make this a livelier city,' " said John Kurtz, a partner in Hubbard & Kurtz, who hoped to one day transform a commercial building into an art piece.

About a decade later he got the chance. In 1998, Kurtz and William Hubbard bought a dull gray building for their law office. They added windows to the north side, and then Kurtz took on the two-story south side.

He was drawn to Alexander Austin's mural of Martin Luther King Jr. and also considered a mural of a historic figure, maybe President John Kennedy.

After some consideration, he moved on to a more universal theme, something from nature. An eagle - with wings spread wide - would stretch nicely across the 120-foot facade.

"I was in the military - 'God Bless America' and all that," said Kurtz. "We were going to put words with it, something like 'Follow your dreams,' but decided to just let it mean whatever it means to people."

Austin spent two weeks on scaffolding, charged $3,500 and tossed in a bright orange sun as background for free. Later, when the building was taken back to its natural brick state, workers were careful to keep the mural intact. The colors have faded a bit, more in keeping with the nearly 130-year-old building.

"We love telling people who are new to town, 'Just go to 18th and Walnut, head north and look for the eagle.' And we see it showing up in panoramas of the Crossroads," Kurtz said. "We've never had a complaint. But a mediator did say it makes our office look like a Harley-Davidson shop."

Like ghostly imprints, murals can remain long after a business has died.

The words "Emery Bird Thayer Co." are prominently splashed across the top of a six-story Kansas City building at now housing EBT Lofts, and have become part of the brand and marketing for the apartment complex. The letters were repainted during the renovation of the building in 2000 and are touched up annually, along with repairs to the brick facade.

"A lot of our properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and history is engrained in the features," said John Bennett Jr., executive vice president of Master Realty Properties Inc., the developer of EBT Lofts. "It's one of the reasons people like to live in these buildings."

When Ryan Maybee and Howard Hanna were opening the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in 2010, they could faintly make out a two-story bottle painted on the south side of the facade with the word "whiskey."

It remained from the days when the Rieger Hotel (circa 1915) operated in the spot. The partners did some research, came up with the J. Rieger & Co. Monogram Whiskey brand, and then spent nearly $9,000 to have the mural restored, re-creating a facsimile of the original. It took three weeks, with the artist mixing the colors in the parking lot even as the first patrons were heading in to lunch.

"That's what this business is, how it began. It's part of our soul and our heritage, and it's important not to lose sight of that," Maybee said. "Now it's a landmark. It makes us easy to find."

One downside of a whiskey mural? Customers want to order the whiskey. Maybee is working on that, too.

O'Brien, owner of the Dolphin gallery in the West Bottoms, said a mural like the Rieger Hotel's may last long after the business is gone.

"Murals can be an art piece. They can be historic," O'Brien said. "The Rieger researched what had been there and re-created it with a bit of a tweak."

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