New Downtown Mural Is a True Big Picture

A new mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra — the largest ArtWorks has yet commissioned — honors late Ohio-born astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Aug 24, 2016 at 12:29 pm
Eduardo Kobra at work on the Armstrong mural - Matt Steffen/ArtWorks
Matt Steffen/ArtWorks
Eduardo Kobra at work on the Armstrong mural

The name of this column — “The Big Picture” — is especially appropriate when discussing the new downtown mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra.

The work — the largest mural that ArtWorks has yet commissioned — is honoring the late Neil Armstrong, the Ohio-born astronaut who in 1969 became the first person to walk on the moon. After his career as an astronaut ended, he became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Kobra’s work is as monumental as Armstrong’s accomplishment. It measures 7,632 square feet and occupies the equivalent of half a city block, along the Walnut Street façade of a parking garage that is part of Fifth Third Bank’s Fountain Square headquarters. The bank is paying the project’s entire cost, in excess of $100,000.

The Armstrong mural may, as a byproduct, singlehandedly revive interest in the skywalk system, since Kobra has been saying the best place to see it will be standing on a connecting link across Walnut Street. (Although the mural was just finished, scaffolding may still be visible for awhile.)

He has been developing an international following for his large spray-painted public murals that, as he has described, mix a retro element — a Photorealist, sometimes black-and-white portrait of the subject, usually sourced from a photograph — with a contemporary, phantasmagorical Op Art-like use of bright color. 

In the Armstrong mural, Kobra, with help from his two assistants and ArtWorks’ four teen apprentices, has surrounded the helmeted, camera-holding astronaut with stripes, squares and emanating rays of fragmented color, color, color. One multi-colored band even serves as a kind of halo. (The mural was sketched and gridded-out first.)

So, this is quite literally one really big picture. But there’s also another aspect in which the term is appropriate. Cincinnati has a role in the larger world — the bigger picture of the evolution of street art. Murals are becoming the preferred, dynamic way for cities to memorialize the cultural heroes and historical figures that residents admire.  

“Street art and public art are really hot in cities all over the world,” says Colleen Houston, ArtWorks vice president of programs and operations. “It’s a great time to be an artist working in public spaces.”

It’s especially a great time to be Kobra, whom ArtWorks commissioned after admiring his 2015 mural for Minneapolis honoring Minnesota-born troubadour Bob Dylan.

That and his Cincinnati mural are a long way from tagging, which is how he got his start in the early 1990s in Sao Paolo. A gifted artist, his name “Kobra” was coined by fellow middle-school students and is slang for excelling at a certain task — drawing, in his case.

During an interview at ArtWorks offices, the Portuguese-speaking artist discussed his origins as Marina Castro provided an English paraphrased translation. He said a key early influence was New York Hip Hop culture. One reason he enjoys his U.S. projects so much — he has done about 15 so far, including an Abraham Lincoln mural in Lexington, Ky. — is because it is the home of New York. In his home country, he has just completed a mural he hopes will qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ever designed by a single artist. It is 32,300 square feet and was done to celebrate the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As he described it and as it was written about on, it features portraits of indigenous peoples of the world.

Incidentally, Cincinnati actually got two local heroes for the price of one with its new Armstong mural. On the upper right-hand corner, as you face it on Walnut Street, you’ll see E.T. in a bicycle basket being pedaled from Earth toward  “home” somewhere in deep, expansive space. As he’s moving away from Armstrong, maybe it’s toward the dark side of the moon.  

Kobra, a dedicated researcher of the cities in which he does murals, said he knew Steven Spielberg, the director of 1982’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was born in Cincinnati. 

“He was trying to make a connection to the people from here,” translator Castro said.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]