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Street art on a world of walls

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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The first clue that Wynwood Kitchen & Bar is not your usual Miami restaurant is the mammoth mural by the entrance.

The flowing blue hair atop the round head of a woman extends out to all four corners of the wall. A young girl slides down a braid on the left, while to the right of the orb-like face, a truckload of revelers, who look like they took a wrong turn from their Mardi Gras route, ride the waves of curls. The subject is so whimsical, the colors so deeply saturated, and the image so perfectly rendered that you quickly realize this is no ordinary graffiti art. On the contrary, this is someone working at the top of their game. Two people, in fact, identical twins from Brazil that go by the name Os Gêmeos (“the twins’’ in Portuguese).

I wander inside and glance toward the bar, only to exclaim when I realize that the interior has been created by arguably the most famous street artist of our time, Shepard Fairey. The Rhode Island School of Design graduate, who was rewarded with a mid-career retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2009, is best known for the ubiquitous “HOPE’’ poster of the 2008 Obama campaign. The dazzling display of prints at Wynwood includes other iconic Fairey images such as Andre the Giant, veiled women, elephants, and birds in flight.

MIAMI - “This is Shepard’s first commission inside a restaurant,’’ says Jessica Goldman Srebnick, a co-owner, as she guides me out to the back patio where larger Fairey works can be seen sharing a long wall, the start of a street art museum coined Wynwood Walls.

It was Srebnick’s father, real estate developer Tony Goldman, who wanted to do something special for the start of Art Basel in 2009. Every December, the country’s foremost contemporary art expo comes to Miami, attracting artists, gallery owners, collectors, curators, critics, and art lovers of every stripe for its four-day run. Much of the action takes place around the Miami Beach Convention Center. Goldman wanted to bring the crowd into the emerging neighborhood of Wynwood, nestled between the Design District and downtown.

Inspired by the success of Art Basel since its inception in 2002, Wynwood has grown into a budding arts district. Well-known Miami contemporary art collectors such as Mera and Don Rubell and Martin Margulies created their own museums in the neighborhood to showcase their latest purchases. Gallery owners soon followed their cue, and today there are more than 80 art galleries in Wynwood. Many of the latest galleries and restaurants, like the David Castillo Gallery and Wynwood Kitchen, are on the stretch of 2d Avenue between 21st and 27th streets.

Still, the area has been slow to gentrify, with plumbing shops and bodegas sharing the wide streets with the new galleries, restaurants, and small boutique clothing shops that are starting to sprout. Much of the industry here once centered around shoe manufacturing. When that went into decline in the 1980s and ’90s, those buildings became derelict. That’s when Goldman stepped in and started to buy some of the properties, envisioning a lively arts scene.

Goldman already had a relationship with Fairey, having hired him to produce a large mural on one of his New York properties. With so many abandoned warehouses in the Wynwood neighborhood, Goldman had an abundance of exterior walls for street artists to display their talent. Partnering with curator Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, they hired Fairey, Os Gêmeos, and 10 other street artists from around the globe to create phase one of Wynwood Walls. Last December, when the Wynwood Kitchen made its debut, four new murals were added to this open air museum.

Just beyond Fairey’s wall, I find the work of Japanese artist Aiko. One could spend all day here scouring her work, as if playing a game of “I Spy’’ with an eclectic mix of images from scantily clad women to a group of pandas. On the next wall, Nunca is another Brazilian artist, whose large, angular faces, all impeccably lined, are captivating.

No street art museum would be complete without the cartoon-like faces created by Kenny Scharf, who came to prominence with the late Keith Haring in the ’80s. See Scharf’s wall, then walk inside an Airstream trailer that Scharf reconfigured into his version of a psychedelic acid trip, where the ceiling and walls envelop you in a blast of Day-Glo color. Ryan McGinness’s 33 women in various shapes, also created in Day-Glo, is best seen at night when the colors bounce off the walls in the dark.

Srebnick has taken advantage of this unique setting to have poetry readings, dance parties, and film screenings. Judging from the large school group that pours into the restaurant at lunchtime as I’m dining on a tasty fish stew in a clay pot, Wynwood Walls has also made the field trip circuit.

“When do you see a group of schoolchildren come to a restaurant to see, not eat?’’ says Srebnick.

Only when that restaurant becomes a venue that displays the electrifying colors and intriguing themes of street art. It’s a rare opportunity to see lawful work of a graffiti artist, with no worry about the artist being arrested or the work being torn down. While some might argue that Goldman has made graffiti art less subversive by incorporating it in a mainstream setting, the visitor, the diner, the viewer is inarguably rewarded.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at activetravels.com.

If You Go

Wynwood Kitchen & Bar
2550 NW 2d Ave.
305-772-8959
wynwoodkitchenandbar.com
Entrees like steak frites or steamed snapper start at $16. The Shepard Fairey, a cocktail of vodka, black raspberry liqueur, and cranberry juice, $12.
Wynwood Walls
2520 NW 2d Ave.
www.thewynwoodwalls.com
Open to the public, free.