Art Basel

Famed street artists turn Miami’s neglected Park West district into a brightly colored canvas

On an anonymous, lightly traveled corner on the edge of Overtown, celebrity street artist Shepard Fairey has quietly spent most of the past few days high up on a lift with an X-acto knife and a can of spray paint, slowly making ugly beautiful.

As occasional passersby do double takes, Fairey, of Barack Obama “Hope” poster fame, has been laying down his signature lace-like patterns on two walls of a bunker-like warehouse over a rich multi-color wash by Kelly “Risk” Graval, the godfather of L.A. graffiti art. Fairey’s Andre the Giant “Obey” face stares out from the center of a star, and, by Sunday afternoon, the outline of the mural’s centerpiece — big letters spelling out “Peace’’ and “Justice’’ — has become legible.

In dreary Park West, the no-man’s land of vacant lots and featureless warehouses between Overtown and back-from-the-dead Biscayne Boulevard, startling oases of vibrant color are popping up all over, courtesy of Risk and a crew of well-known street and graffiti artists he recruited at the behest of a pair of neighborhood activists.

Park West, of all places, is getting the urban-renewal-through-graffiti-art treatment. Big time.


By week’s end, nine buildings and warehouses in Park West, with the consent and financial support of their owners, will sport giant art-graffiti murals over Risk’s trademark “Beautifully Destroyed’’ drip-like color washes, the result of a near spur-of-the moment lunge to draw the Art Basel horde’s attention to the stirrings of a neighborhood revival.

“Everything we’ve done in the past four years is to change the perception of this neighborhood, and this is another way to get us on the radar,” said activist Mark Lesniak, instigator of the murals project with activist/developer Brad Knoefler, who renovated the Park West building housing the Grand Central lofts and music venue. The activist duo also built the temporary Grand Central park on the rubble of the old Miami Arena.

Just don’t call it Wynwood south, Lesniak and Knoefler say, alluding to the warehouse district a few blocks north that went from derelict to happening in a seeming flash, thanks in large part to a rapid proliferation of graffiti murals. Though urban pioneer Tony Goldman’s Wynwood Walls complex — where Fairey just completed a tribute mural to the developer, who died in September — is gallery-quality, it’s attracted too many lesser imitators and an inconsistent hodge-podge to the blocks around it, the activists say.

In Park West, which they prefer be known as simply downtown Miami, the activists say their mural project will be distinguished by the visual consistency provided by Risk’s washes. By working with neighborhood property owners, in particular Miami World Center, the development entity that controls a large chunk of the district, they hope to keep some control over quality.

World Center, which recently purchased Knoefler’s Grand Central building and the temporary park property from another owner and converted the old Capt. Harry’s building into art studios, seeded the mural project with a $15,000 contribution.

Those neighborhood anchors, along with the Legal Art group, whose renovated building houses artists, lectures and Nemesis Bistor and the Corner bar, have helped spark an incipient transformation in Park West. The Magic City Bicycle Collective, a volunteer group that teaches people how to rebuild old bikes, has established a workshop across the street. The district even boasts a sports bar, the Will Call, a block west of the AmericanAirlines Arena. With the Camillus House homeless shelter’s recent move out of Park West, Knoefler said, the time is ripe to lure in visitors, and the murals seem a sure-fire way to do it.


Fairey — whose work includes politically provocative street art, clothing and graphic design, which can be seen on the package for Led Zeppelin’s new concert CD and DVD — says he’s seen it work time and again, and he believes it can succeed in Park West, too.

“When art comes into a neighborhood, bars and cafes, galleries and studios open up. Good art makes a real difference in a neighborhood,” Fairey said on a lunch break at Will Call. “Wynwood is completely saturated and people are looking for new places to be creative. Nine impressive pieces will make an impact.”

With a grin, he added: “I’m just glad to have a good canvas.’’

Lesniak and Knoefler say they pulled the project together in a matter of weeks after a sudden brainstorm. They approached Risk, who last year put one of his color washes on the back of the Grand Central building, for help. They credit Risk, whose Risk Rock is underwriting travel and hospitality costs, with corralling big-name collaborators. None of the artists is getting paid, the activists say, and contributions from local properties and businesses have topped $60,000 to cover materials.

All the artists are from out of town, which is not sitting well with some locals, Knoefler concedes.

“They’re doing it free. What are you going to do, say no? Everyone else is so positive about this,’’ he said.

Project coordinators say they have also reached a detente with local graffiti crews so that the new murals don’t get tagged.

Fairey has been working in relative anonymity on his corner just south of Northeast 14th Street.

To encourage visitors and the curious to explore Park West, project coordinators don’t want to specify where the mural work is going on. But it’s easy to find and — here’s a hint — Fairey’s working just a couple of blocks west of the Arsht Center’s opera house.

Once the mural is done sometime Monday, the whole thing will be covered with a clearcoat flecked with metallic sparkles developed by Risk. So will the eight other planned murals.

Other artists, including the twin-brother duo known as How and Nosm (Raoul and David Pierre), are set to start work Monday.

In Wynwood last week, Fairey said he was constantly interrupted by fans with questions and requests for the Obey stickers that first brought him fame, and he was happy to oblige. But he’s been blissfully unmolested while working on the Park West project, in part because he’s too high up on the lift to be bothered. Word has been getting out, though, and photographers have begun stopping by, some with models to pose in front of the work-in-progress.

Fairey’s method is painstaking: He and his crew paste or tape printed paper stencils in place on the wall, then strip away the elements to be spray-painted with a knife. After the paint dries, they remove the remaining paper and touch up the paint. Unlike his other designs, which cover a wall entirely, this one has large open sections to let Risk’s colors show through.

“They’re really beautiful,’’ Fairey said.