Murals with a Message

Artists take on the walls blocking social justice and community-building

click to enlarge “Wall of Queens” - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
“Wall of Queens”

Editor's Note: Last year will go down as one of the most divisive in recent memory — but not on the streets of Cincinnati. Led by BLINK and ArtWorks, the public murals program took a markedly progressive leap forward — in message, in design, in sheer presence — from what had come before. We saw more murals with a deeper meaning and pledges to keep the conversations going in 2018. There was so much change that you may not be familiar with all that was accomplished in 2017, so here’s a look at how some of the most notable new artworks came about.

“I’m painting walls to break ’em down,” says artist Benjamin Thomas while sitting in Parkside Café in Walnut Hills, a neighborhood dealing with questions of disparity and displacement.

Thomas then pauses a beat to let the simplicity and enormity of his action sink in. “There you go. That’s the main focus. That’s the hashtag,” he says. “I’m painting walls to break ’em down.”

His slogan is a bit longer than #wearewalnuthills or #wearecincinnati — the tags officially attached to his project — but Thomas will let others manage the online dialogue. He treasures the face-to-face conversations he had while creating the “We Are Cincinnati” mural outside the café.

Thomas’ artwork, done in partnership with the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, depicts four residents affected by segregation. It is one of several murals created in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in 2017 that address cultural and physical barriers to social justice, diversity and community building. Painted almost entirely freehand with spray cans, Thomas’ mural also reflects a hipper, street-art style that became more pronounced on the region’s walls last year.   

“We Are Cincinnati” is a grassroots movement that is just getting started. Meanwhile, ArtWorks, the nonprofit that has been making murals in the region for a decade (and is celebrating with the book Transforming Cincinnati), also set out to push social and artistic boundaries and work more closely with communities last year, says CEO and Artistic Director Tamara Harkavy. Alongside more traditional murals that celebrate the Scripps National Spelling Bee, artist Edie Harper, the Flying Pig Marathon and Rookwood Pottery, ArtWorks’ other new projects seek to dispel myths about homelessness, welcome refugees, foster cultural understanding, rally defenders of democracy and recognize seven ordinary African-American females as Queen City royalty.

Popping in one time to “beautify a neighborhood” simply doesn’t go far enough in creating change. Artist Lizzy DuQuette, who helped design five multicultural murals in East Price Hill over the summer for ArtWorks, calls that well-meaning phrase “icky,” and Harkavy agrees. Her organization now is doubling down on year-over-year investments in people and places and the issues affecting them.

“I’m really excited about posing the questions, creating the dialogue, creating a safe place have these conversations,” Harkavy says. “It’s about unity. It’s about access. It’s about equity. It’s about respect. It’s about, in some ways, bubbling up and allowing ourselves to talk about our real truths and seriously, honestly, expressing ourselves.”

For proof of art’s ability to connect, she points to the enormous success of the BLINK festival, which ArtWorks helped produce. Over four days in October, an estimated 1 million people visited 20 blocks of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, where artists used light and murals to envision a future city of creativity, innovation and inclusion.

Across the river and on a smaller scale, artist and restaurant owner Emily Wolff also has used art and light to unite neighborhoods. Working with a grant from People’s Liberty, Wolff has been painting a bright abstract mural and installing chandeliers in the Sixth Street railroad underpass that cuts off Covington’s MainStrasse from the Mutter Gottes Historic District and redevelopment on Madison Avenue. Years of neglect have turned CSX’s passageways into intimidating canyons for pedestrians across the city.

“Challenging people on what we perceive as normal — that’s exciting to me,” Wolff says of her creative placemaking. “This should be the standard.”

ArtWorks Murals that Carry a Message

“Wall of Queens” | Inside the Duke Energy Convention Center, 525 Elm St., Downtown: Hopefully, both locals and visiting conventioneers will discover this upper-level installation, which is a reflection of the city’s diversity as well as its diligence. Artist James Pate and nine apprentices etched away at 280 scratchboard panels over the summer and into the fall.

“The only focus was to scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch,” Pate said at the October dedication. Finally, a beautiful panorama that looks like a black-and-white photograph came together.

Six African-American women and a little girl — acquaintances of the Dayton artist, plus his young daughter — gaze proudly from the wall.  Each wears a crown and is surrounded by a halo effect. Their number is a reference to the seven hills of Cincinnati. The rippling layout of the panels is intended to evoke the Ohio River.

“Absolutely, undeniably stunning. Love it! Love it!” Harkavy says. “One of the favorite things I’ve ever seen.”

Pate’s name might be familiar to those who saw his Kin Killin’ Kin exhibit two years ago at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His powerful images compared black-on-black gang violence to the terrorism inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan.

Though all the faces in “Wall of Queens” are African-American, this new work is not intended as a political or exclusionary statement, Pate says. Rather, the former Cincinnatian calls it another “wing of humanity” in the convention center.

click to enlarge “Razzle Camp" - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
“Razzle Camp"
“Razzle Camp” | 2940 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington: Incorporating patterns from northern Africa, the Mideast and Appalachia, the quilt mural on the building that houses Wave Pool gallery welcomes the refugees and immigrants who are settling in Cincinnati and embraces Camp Washington’s longtime blue-collar residents and makers. 

“Pattern is really important to me, but I didn’t want to just make a collage of patterns,” says artist Christian Davies. The “razzle” part of the title refers to razzle-dazzle camouflage used on ships during World War I. With its diagonal designs, razzle camouflage didn’t hide ships as much as it made it difficult to determine which direction they were going or how many there were.

Davies, of San Francisco, introduced the idea while discussing the mural’s design with immigrant girls who attend Roberts Paideia Academy and refugee women who practice artisan skills at The Welcome Project, a social enterprise between Wave Pool and the outreach organization Heartfelt Tidbits. 

“The girls got it right away,” Davies says. “How can you incorporate who you are in how you adapt to navigating these things, to finding safe passage in this new world that you’re transported to?”

Heartfelt Tidbits founder Sheryl Rajbhandari says “Razzle Camp” brings recognition to more than 25,000 refugees who are living among us as a hidden population.

The painting is in sight of “Campy Washington,” a 2008 ArtWorks mural that depicts George Washington in a Victorian gown with a cow from the neighborhood’s stockyards by his side. The president’s costume is a nod to Schenz Theatrical Supply, a landmark in the eclectic community. But some residents objected to seeing a Founding Father in drag, even signing a petition that still sits inside U.S. Chili.

Harkavy and Calcagno Cullen, co-founder of Wave Pool, love that “Razzle Camp” is an abstract work that subtly makes its political statement. It’s a different kind of talking point for the neighborhood. The newer mural, says Harkavy, “really marks that permission, or more of a permission, that we have now to use our murals to have community conversations.”

East Price Hill Mural Series | Five mini-murals, 3300-3600 blocks of Warsaw Ave., East Price Hill: The childlike collages along this diverse neighborhood’s gritty thoroughfare are full of favorite foods, animals, sports equipment, musical instruments, flowers and messages of unity. What’s more noteworthy is what was left out.

“What we wanted to see is that rainbow reflecting the community that it is. We did not want to see anything trite,” Harkavy says. “I did not want to see (the cliché of) the black people and the white people holding hands. No, we are way beyond that in how we create authenticity.”

The murals’ genuineness grew out of multiple community engagements with artists John Lanzador and Lizzy DuQuette, who is a Price Hill resident. As the two attended MYCincinnati concerts, a Las Alfombras celebration and the opening of Percussion Park or met shoppers at Kroger, they distributed questionnaires asking residents to share treasured things about their heritage and their neighborhood. The letters making up the murals’ messages — positive phrases such as “Give peace a chance” and “Come sit at my table” — were cut of out cloth that neighborhood youngsters and senior citizens painted.

Lanzador, who was born in the Philippines, says it was important to him and DuQuette that they made symbolic references to immigration rather than adopting a heavy-handed point of view. They hint at the topic by including the migratory Monarch butterfly on some murals. One collage does include the Spanish translation of “The community united will never be defeated”: El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido.

Lanzador says he modeled an image of a girl playing the violin after a Guatemalan child he saw at the Las Alfombras event, but it’s the joy of seeing anyone doing what they love that’s truly important in a thriving community.

One day last summer, the artist was standing by the painting when a woman in a car called to him, “Is that my daughter?”

“She was asking about her own daughter who plays violin,” Lanzador says. “And I said, ‘Tell her it is,’ because it really could be anybody’s daughter.”

click to enlarge “Democracy!” - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

“Democracy! | 1200 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine: “Messy” is the adjective Harkavy keeps turning to when describing the gonzo design by British illustra- tor Ralph Steadman, and the government as well. The word “democracy” is at the center of a large splatter and a screaming mouth takes the place of the “o.” It’s a call to get involved somewhere, somehow.

This is the first time Steadman’s art has appeared on a public mural. He made his name in the pages of Rolling Stone while collaborating with writer Hunter S. Thompson, but his street-style art deserves to live outside, project manager Jenny Ustick said at the dedication. Harkavy predicts that the “Democracy!” image will spark conversations and become a civic icon, similar to ArtWorks’ “Sing the Queen City” sculpture near the riverfront. 

click to enlarge “Faces of Homelessness” - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
“Faces of Homelessness”

“Faces of Homelessness” | 1225 Vine St., Over-the Rhine: This four-story mural on the side of the Recovery Hotel for homeless addicts marks ArtWorks’ second collaboration with Brooklyn-based stencil artists ICY + SOT. In 2016, the Iranian refugees, who are brothers, designed an edgy anti-gun mural for the facade of downtown’s Christ Church Cathedral that was temporary. This mural is permanent — remaining at least until homelessness is eradicated, says Harkavy.

The faces are of real people who have experienced homelessness. They don’t look much different from you, your family, friends or coworkers, which is the point.

“A big challenge is helping the community understand who is actually homeless,” said President and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, Kevin Finn, at the mural dedication. “We don’t want people to buy into myths or stereotypes.”

The artists and the youth apprentices hired by ArtWorks met with clients of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and other agencies to hear stories that would inform the design of the Vine Street mural. The team also made satellite installations about homelessness among the LGBTQ community, abused women, veterans and families. Children represent a quarter of Hamilton County’s homeless population.

Giselle Davis is the young woman on the center of the big wall, with her little boy hoisted on her shoulders. She spoke at the dedication, introducing herself as “one of the beautiful people that’s on this mural.” Their faces are smiling in testament to what happens when people join together to do good.

Davis at one time had an apartment, a car and a job. Then she lost everything. Through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, she found shelter and stability again. “I want everyone to see that the visible person on the street who may ask you for money is not the only face of homelessness,” she told the crowd. “It’s also everyday people hidden in our community.”

ArtWorks apprentice Josie Masset said the stories she heard while working on this mural taught her to overcome feelings of fear, guilt and hopelessness in favor of strength, empathy and engagement.

The entire experience was cathartic, says Harkavy. “It was a very difficult mural to create, as it should have been.”

Find more information on ArtWorks and its murals at

click to enlarge We Are Walnut Hills” - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
We Are Walnut Hills”

We Are Cincinnati

Benjamin Thomas spent as much time listening as he did spray-painting for a couple months last summer outside the Parkside Café at 1026 E. McMillian St. in Walnut Hills.

“I would be engaging in conversation after conversation,” he says — sometimes up to an hour. “Doubt about what I was even doing and how it would really affect people was completely erased by all the interaction I had.”

The four people on the “We Are Cincinnati” mural are Walnut Hills residents who feel the burden of segregation in their neighborhood and frustration at the developers who want to push them out, even though they’re trying to make life better.

George Smith played baseball in the Mets farm system. He’d like to connect with sponsors who could help him start a Little League team that would keep kids away from crime.

Leonard Jackson and wife Shawn pick up trash daily in the business district. “I’m just trying to be an example for people to begin to take initiative and pride in their own properties and their own communities. That’s the only way that you are going to better a community — not by moving people out,” Leonard says. “You hear about all these community organizations, (but) the everyday individual that’s been doing it for years is being overlooked.”

Brenae Ivory is interested in being a photographer and broadcaster. But after a troubled past, she’s still learning how to find the resources to make that happen, says Aprina Johnson, community coordinator for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. The foundation recruited Thomas and three other artists to share the neighborhood’s stories. 

With the “We Are Cincinnati” project, Thomas wants public art to move beyond murals that feature people of color only after they’ve achieved something big.

“It’s not about uplifting people already in good spirits and doing things. It’s really about trying to help people right where they’re at,” he says. For example, let an imperfect young person shadow you at your job. If you don’t have time to coach a team, support someone who does.

“Show some love regardless of the merit of that person and what they’ve done for you,” Thomas says. “When people hang out, that’s really where walls break down.”

Thomas wants to bring We Are Cincinnati to his Price Hill neighborhood and others in 2018. Find more information at

click to enlarge Emily Wolff - Photo: Lauren Difulvio
Photo: Lauren Difulvio
Emily Wolff


Restaurateur Emily Wolff found it unacceptable that after dining at her establishments Otto’s and Frida 602 in historic MainStrasse, her customers were taking Uber rather than walking the few blocks to the goings-on at Braxton Brewing Co. on Seventh Street and new businesses along Madison Avenue. They said they were too “creeped out” to venture through the dim, deteriorating CSX railroad underpass at Sixth Street on foot. So she came up a way to make the underpass a destination itself and a connector rather than a divider between Covington’s east and west sides.

Wolff made a pitch to the People’s Liberty philanthropy for a grant that could challenge Covington to rethink its infrastructure. “What if we used creative lighting? What if we used chandeliers? What if we used paint in a way of creative way-finding?” she says.

Wolff, who studied fine arts and design, has painted a bold graphic of black and white lines, pink triangles and gold stars that spread from the ceiling to sidewalk.

“The star, to me, has this symbolism of a guiding light leading from point A to point B,” she says. “And it’s playful. I want it to feel playful. I want it to feel welcoming.”

Modern-looking chandeliers from a Covington synagogue have replaced tube lighting. Wolff points out that the pattern formed by their six lamps also suggests a star. She finds it serendipitous that they are being reused to again create a sense of peace and beauty.

“It’s awesome to hear other people saying we deserve this beautiful underpass,” Wolff says. “This should be the standard, as opposed to crumbling cement and unsafe lighting.”

Wolff has worked on the project during festivals when Sixth Street is closed, and she intends to finish during MainStrasse’s Maifest 2018. Once this underpass is done, she hopes artists will adopt others to better connect a whole community divided by a railroad.

See video of the underpass transformation and get more information at

click to enlarge Mural by Swoon - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Mural by Swoon

Epilogue: The Future City

During BLINK, local marketing agency AGAR recruited international street artists and the Cincinnati design firm Xylene to create murals along Pleasant Street and other sites near Findlay Market. Street artist Swoon’s sweeping exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center overflowed into alleys in Over-the-Rhine. With their cool, funky, bold, beautiful, brooding and psychedelic designs, the invited artists held up a new mirror to Cincinnati. BLINK’s mission was to envision the future city.

ArtWork’s Harkavy expects that city will be a place that both celebrates art for art’s sake and uses it to engage in important conversations that connect communities and lift people up. She and ArtWorks are working on a concept tentatively called Cincinnati Paint by Numbers that will invite more hands to participate in the making of a mural.

“The theme, the look, the tone, the feel, I don’t know what that’s going to be yet,” she says. “But I do know it will have a social charge to it and a meaning beyond the pretty picture.” ©

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