Around Town

Meet the man behind many of the street murals popping up all over Charlotte

There is so much more to a mural than meets the eye.

That doesn’t mean the backstory behind what’s painted on the side of a building, although there usually is one. Murals have ethical implications many of us don’t think to consider.

Artist and Queens University of Charlotte professor Mike Wirth wants us to begin pondering those implications. His talk, “Decoding Charlotte’s Murals,” which was Tuesday night at the Levine Museum of the New South, began generating social media buzz weeks ago.

How can something big, bright and colorful that lends personality to an otherwise drab alley or windowless side of a building be anything but beneficial?

In a word, the answer is: Gentrification.

Gentrification is good for property values, but a burden for the longtime residents who often are priced out of neighborhoods that have been home for decades, maybe generations.

Wirth said too often well-meaning developers or building owners hire a muralist to give a building a personality, but they do it without consulting neighbors. Then, the artist may end up creating something offensive to longtime residents.

He declined to mention a specific local example but said, “In some of Charlotte’s historic neighborhoods, an owner with fully good intentions may bring in an artist — maybe from somewhere else, maybe of a different race than most of the neighborhood — to paint a mural. It can end up reading as tone-deaf. It can hit poorly.”

Social awareness

Artists need to be socially aware, Wirth said. Part of Wirth’s mission is to make Charlotte muralists aware of the larger implications of their work.

It’s not that Wirth, a muralist himself, wants to be a wet blanket. He loves the power murals have to engage the public. An otherwise nondescript building can suddenly become a destination, once it has been painted.

He knows. One of his murals — done in conjunction with the Southern Tiger Collective, an alliance of local muralists — is in Plaza Midwood on the side of the building that houses The Peculiar Rabbit restaurant and The Rabbit Hole nightclub. The mural brings a funky, whimsical dynamism to a busy intersection in one of Charlotte’s most eclectic neighborhoods.

The mural, which Wirth estimates is 11 feet tall and 25 feet high, makes sense in context to its surroundings. It doesn’t stand apart from them.

Photo by Alex Cason<br/>Peculiar Rabbit Rod Zimmerman

“The owner wanted to capture the energy of the neighborhood,” Wirth said. “We did a giant bunny holding a beer, but it’s in a style that’s becoming synonymous with me. Stylistically, there’s a big swirl that’s part of it that’s reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’”

Ancient and modern

It’s not surprising that Wirth’s thoroughly contemporary mural borrows from a painter whose work helped define the late 1800s post-Impressionistic era. Murals are the most ancient art form, Wirth said.

It’s a surprising niche for someone whose primary medium started out as technology.

“I studied digital art in college,” he said. “But the commercial art market has changed in revolutionary ways three or four times since I graduated.”

He was trained in Adobe Flash, which “everyone wanted at the time,” he said. “Then, Steve Jobs called it ‘trash’ and it devastated the market. I had been trained in this, and so quickly, it was taken from me.”

Wirth needed to reinvent himself.

He uses his own career as a lesson for his students. “I tell them, ‘What you’re learning today may be obsolete soon.’ As a teacher, I’m constantly training my future competition.”

He became an expert in infographics and had A-list clients, such as The Wall Street Journal, National Parks magazine and Then, everyone started to do infographics. “I wasn’t so special anymore,” he said.

That’s what led to his most recent career transition. “Suddenly, I was a newbie,” he said of his work as a muralist. “It was very humbling. There were people 10 years younger than me making crazy money at this. I’m an old dog in a new field, and I’m still learning.”

A symbiotic relationship

Today, Wirth said, clients ask him for “Instagrammable” moments as often as they used to ask for “the next viral infographic.”

Instagram and murals have a symbiotic relationship. There’s a mural in NoDa, Wirth said, so Insta-popular it has more followers than the artist who created it. Jonay DiRagno has, as of publication date, 257 followers. The Instagram account for his “Mural Fibonacci” – the No. 1 selfie spot in Charlotte, according to Wirth – has 495.

When it comes to murals, Wirth has become the go-to guy in town. He’s also the founder and co-leader of the Talking Walls Mural festival, an artist-led, community-based festival held for the first time in Charlotte last October.

Landlords and building owners consult him for recommendations of mural artists.

“A mural is becoming almost like an amenity,” he said. “Building owners know: This mural is going to boost social engagement. We’re saying: ‘Hey, you just moved into the neighborhood. Have you had community conversations yet? Have you tried to educate yourself on the neighborhood’s history? This is a moral decision with cultural, economic and social implications.’”

He knows not everyone considers those implications when appreciating a mural — or taking a selfie in front of one. “Being an academic, I reflect on these things,” he said.

That’s what he’ll do at his April 30 talk. “We’ll unpack all of this,” he said. “But we’ll do it in a simple, digestible way.”

And, he adds, he hopes building owners will begin to include a line-item in their budgets for murals.

This article originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.