Mural festival turns the streets of Sacramento into an open-air fine-art museum
David Sobon, the local-arts-impresario-slash-nonprofit-auctioneer, is on a quest to brighten the urban landscape—and bring cutting-edge contemporary art to everyone in Sacramento.
The Wide Open Walls mural festival, which Sobon founded and directs, will see 50 muralists, including homegrown artists and international talent, creating 40 huge pieces in every corner of the city. In sheer square footage, this will be the largest mural festival ever mounted on the West Coast.
Sobon says the festival was created to give every resident direct access to the depth of styles and unique perspectives of artists who are just as diverse as the city’s residents.
“Everybody’s not going to go walk into a museum; everybody’s not going to walk into a gallery,” Sobon says. “But anybody can walk or drive or bike down the street and look at beautiful art. My goal is to paint every single district in the city, and that will happen in due time.”
While he was working with the owners of local buildings to secure the walls, Sobon brought in Warren Brand of Branded Arts, an LA-based art company that creates large-scale installations for municipalities, corporations and nonprofits. Brand then worked with the building-owners to pair them with leading wall-artists from around the country and the world, including 23 local painters (seven of whom of whom are profiled here).
“It was exciting to learn about each owner’s vision and aesthetics, and to select artists based on that criteria,” he says.
Brand sees the WOW festival, and his company’s mission, as part of a hallowed history.
“People have been organizing to create public art for centuries,” he says. “Think of the sculptural installations and statues in cities around the world—somebody had to organize that. We’re doing the same thing, but on the cutting edge of contemporary art.”
The contemporary mural movement is rooted somewhat in the graffiti scene that erupted in New York in the early 1980s, and evolved alongside the birth of hip-hop. That scene gave the world artists including Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, both of whom later moved into the studio with huge success, and somewhat less well-known but no-less brilliant artists such as Dondi, Futura 2000 and Lady Pink.
Brand is clearly happy that the street art movement is now being recognized by the smart people in the legitimate art world, and thrilled to be part of WOW fest.
“This is a really important thing,” he says. “Some of the best muralists in the world are coming to Sacramento. I’m so proud. It’s insane.”
For Sabon, this festival, the second in what he hopes will be an ongoing event, continues an effort to make Sacramento a destination for lovers of outdoor art. Since conceiving of this idea, and before and after last year’s mural festival, Sobon and his wife, Anna, have traveled to various countries to check out outdoor art.
“We went to Mexico City and saw some of the most famous murals in the world.” he says. “We went to Los Angeles and did the same thing. Last year we took mural tours in Barcelona, Rome and Venice.”
Five years from now, will there be mural tours of Sacramento?
“There will be mural tours of Sacramento starting August 10.”
—Eric Johnson and Steph Rodriguez
Molly Devlin + S.V. Williams
Through intricate details wrought with fine brush strokes, Molly Devlin and S.V. Williams aim to transfix viewers and transport passersby into another world with a mural soon to be located on 11th Street, across from Amaro Italian Bistro & Bar.
Devlin, known for her acrylic paintings of ominous masked figures and otherworldly creatures, says she was inspired to paint a giant squid. The concept developed to include animals from land and sea along with Williams’ painting of a pelican trying to escape the tentacles of the eight-armed sea creature.
“We both are attracted to organic movement, animals and nature,” Devlin says. “We both like to take things less literally than the way they’re portrayed in real life. We just want to make it fun, vivid and energetic and make you think, ’Where am I?’”
Williams’ resume includes an early background in graffiti and knack for creating magical, underwater worlds with boldly detailed sea life. Together, the two artists have created dozens of projects over the past four years, from an installation at ArtStreet to large paintings on slabs of wood at music festivals. While they enjoy painting for any occasion, the two prefer outdoor murals.
“Our piece has a lot of action and it’s very large,” Williams says. “We hope people will walk up to it and see all the different details and bursts of magic and textures. I think we just wanted to paint something really bold and detailed—something that could really draw people in.”
Molly Devlin and S.V. Williams’ mural will be located at 11th and R streets
Demetris Washington will never forget his first mural. He was a high school senior living in Stockton when he received $500 to paint an image of the school’s mascot in the boy’s locker room. Since his move to Sacramento in 2009, Washington’s painted more than 20 murals throughout the city under the name BAMR, which stands for Becoming A Man Righteously. But, before he brightened many of the city’s walls with color, Washington recalls a time when blank surfaces beckoned to be painted.
“When I first came to Sacramento, I remember seeing so many bare walls everywhere,” he says. “To me, those walls looked like candy.”
Now, his list of works include a black-and-purple basketball mural for the Sacramento Kings and a 120-foot-long panorama depicting a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Now he’s got his eye on South Sacramento. It was the first neighborhood he called home, so it’s a fitting location for the mural he will create during the Wide Open Walls festival.
Although he’s kept most of the details about the mural secret, the concept is based on unity. The piece will be visible to all cars that travel along Highway 99.
“Unity is a very powerful word. There’s so much to be said about the word with people coming together and putting their heads together, specifically,” he says. “I enjoy painting as it is. I feel like it was what I was born to do, but when I can attach a purpose to it, it’s that much greater.”
BAMR’s mural will be Located at 6700 Mack Road
If Anthony Padilla didn’t have to eat or sleep, he says, he would paint 24/7. Working under the name Kinetik Ideas, Padilla’s laid color on the horizons of Sacramento since the ’90s. Often times he wakes up to paint one mural and is seen finishing another in the evening. So, it’s no surprise to learn he’s taking on two walls during the WOW festival.
One mural, located at 14th and C streets and sponsored by the California Endowment, is inspired by health awareness and access to nutritious foods. The other project blends the ideas of nature and technology and will also incorporate a metal structure resembling a poppy, which Padilla built. Its leaves are made out of solar panels, and a fruit-shaped battery will store energy from the sun, allowing passersby to use it as a phone-charging station.
“It’s something that I want to put in every park and college in California,” Padilla says. “At night, it provides light, which makes it a safer place, and it also makes a statement about renewable energy because it’s all self-contained.”
A Sacramento native who’s watched the flux in graffiti and aerosol art through the years, Padilla sees murals as opportunities not only to make the city’s surroundings more colorful, but also to encourage independent thought.
“I’m all for big art outside,” he says. “I’ve been doing graffiti for 22 years and there was a time where you couldn’t paint on walls. Now, it’s just become more accepted. As time goes on, people accept things because true art doesn’t go away.”
One of Padilla’s murals will be located at 14th and C streets; the other will be in Liestal Alley between 17th and 18th streets.
On a trip to Bali, Maren Conrad witnessed a group of women admiring a koi pond inside one of the island’s temples. The women, who were all dealing with cancer, visited the temple to gather water from the koi pond that Conrad says is rumored to have healing powers.
“It was one of the most powerful things I had ever witnessed,” she says. “It was this really heavy moment in my life, and it was so visibly beautiful.”
When she returned home, Conrad began researching the history of koi and discovered the colorful fish has an even brighter story. An ancient Japanese legend holds that a school of koi tried to swim up a waterfall, but were thwarted by demons who kept raising it, slowly. One by one, each fish dropped off until there was only a single one to make it to the top of the waterfall, where the gods transformed it into a golden dragon.
“They represent prosperity through perseverance,” Conrad says. “If you fight long and hard enough you can become something much greater than you ever imagined. It’s such a wonderful symbol for artists.”
For the past decade, Conrad’s painted 30 pieces that pay homage to her spirit animal. She plans to further its legend of perseverance by painting two large koi on the 360-foot-long by 30-foot-high wall on the entire back of the MARRS Building in Midtown.
“I’m going to be on this giant scissor lift, and I have 10 days to knock this out,” Conrad says. “And I’m really looking forward to challenging myself artistically.”
Maren Conrad’s mural will be located at 20th and J streets
Lopan 4000 + Ernie Fresh
These two artists met in the third grade, when teachers still referred to them as Neal Bergmann and Ernie Upton. They bonded over hip-hop and video games, and remember times when they would draw Super Mario and Ninja Turtles characters for fun. By age 15, they transitioned from illustrating on paper to painting outdoors as Lopan 4000 and Ernie Fresh.
“We would paint big walls with a large background and everyone would do their own graffiti,” Bergmann says. “That’s where I met [S.V. Williams] too, and he was probably the best in our crew artistically.”
The two will combine their childhood appreciation for giant robots and ’80s sci-fi movie posters for the Wide Open Walls festival, with a retro outer space aesthetic for their mural located at 12th and B streets.
With more than 20 years tag-teaming murals, Bergmann and Upton have bombed walls in Reno and the Bay Area, the latter being a place of inspiration given its rich mural and graffiti culture that raged throughout the ’90s.
“We don’t need to explain what we’re talking about with each other,” Upton says. “Typically when he shows me an example of something I always say yes. And when anybody else does—I don’t know, man.”
Both men hope their latest piece inspires young people with the same misfit spirit that drove them to pick up a can of spray paint.
“When I was growing up, seeing art on walls was inspirational to me and it helped shape who I am today,” Bergmann says. “I would hope to do something like that for someone else or for the younger generations to see and also feel inspired.”
Ernie Fresh and Lopan’s mural will be located at 12th and B streets
Inspired by the neon ’80s and old-school sci-fi movies, artist John Horton takes traditional art and manipulates shapes and textures to create a more digital and futuristic experience.
Horton drew his favorite comic book characters as a child, and for him, comics and graffiti go hand in hand. For the last decade, he’s kept busy painting commissioned murals on the interiors and exteriors of Sacramento businesses, and he recalls times when clients preferred paintbrushes to rattle-cans.
“In the last five years it’s been completely acceptable to use spray paint, but I used to be expected to do everything by brush,” he says. “It’s really cool to see the flipside where murals are being well received and drawing artists from all around the world.”
His latest mural was finished in early July and features a trio of astronauts wearing vintage pressure helmets. The mural displayed on 19th and P streets combines pixelated shapes and patches of vivid color blended with both hard and soft line work.
For Wide Open Walls, Horton landed a 92-foot-wide concrete surface on 20th and I across from Maverique Style House.
“The wall is black so I’ll be using a lot of teal, purple and pink, and a lot of those vibrant, neon colors,” he says. “It’s going to be a portrait of a woman who’s abstracted with cool patterns. I think that it will open people’s eyes to a different style of futuristic artwork that we don’t really have here.”
John Horton’s mural will be located at 20th and I streets
(Original cover story published in the Sacramento News & Review on July 31, 2017)