St. Petersburg’s mural culture defines city commitment to the arts, artists

It’s no secret to anyone who gets around the neighborhoods of downtown St. Pete that the city is big on art — quite literally.

From the Grand Central, Edge, M.L.K., Central and Warehouse arts districts and elsewhere downtown, huge murals grace the walls of buildings, making a bold statement about the city’s strong arts culture.

In essence, downtown St. Pete is an outdoor art gallery, where the works of local, national and international artists are on display. And like a gallery, the exhibits are ever-changing, as older murals are painted over with new works.

The city’s annual SHINE Mural Festival is when many of the new murals are painted. The most recent festival was in October, when 19 new murals debuted. The rotation of new murals into the city is what helps keep the downtown scene fresh and vibrant, believes Terry Marks, CEO of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which stages SHINE. She said over time the city’s murals have helped define its character, and many businesses are embracing it.

“They want to be part of the street art community,” Marks said, adding that nonprofit organizations also are jumping into the scene and want their own murals, to “engage and beautify” their buildings’ facades.

“It is contagious,” said Johnny Vitale, a muralist who operates Vitale Bros., a St. Pete art and mural studio that’s been around since the infancy of the city’s mural movement.

Not only are many downtown businesses clamoring for murals, homeowners in St. Pete have caught the bug.

“They want them at their homes, especially by their pools,” said Vitale, who started his company in 1992. “In 1990 there were just a handful (of murals) in town; now they are all over.” Vitale likes the way murals have evolved in St. Pete over the years, as they aren’t garish or “shameless advertising,” nor are they “just graffiti,” but rather “real art for art’s sake.”

“Businesses use them to create an identity, but they are not blatant advertising messages,” he said. “They are more like landmarks that people associate the business with.”

This striking wolf mural was done by St. Pete muralists, the Vitale Bros. for Casita Taqueria restaurant in town.
This striking wolf mural was done by St. Pete muralists, the Vitale Bros. for Casita Taqueria restaurant in town. [ Vitale Bros. ]

Vitale said his firm stays busy these days, and because murals are so popular, he’s adopted a simple policy of charging by the square foot. A simple design might be $10 per square foot, while something with a lot of detail could cost $40 per square foot. He works alongside artist-brother Paul, a couple of other artists and a staff member to create Vitales all over town.

He and his bother learned mural painting working for a billboard company in the days before digital when things were done by hand and imagination alone. When murals got started in St. Pete, he said he and other artists weren’t compensated for their creations.

“No one was getting paid,” he recalled. “They were just doing art, but then we started getting calls (for mural jobs); now we get calls from all over.”

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Bright and happy, this mural by Leo Gomez provides a focal point and splash of color along 7th Ave. N. in St. Pete. Gomez opened Gomez Studio in the city six years ago.
Bright and happy, this mural by Leo Gomez provides a focal point and splash of color along 7th Ave. N. in St. Pete. Gomez opened Gomez Studio in the city six years ago. [ Leo Gomez ]

Muralist Leo Gomez, owner of Gomez Studio, is another of the city’s well-known artists. He started out as a graphic designer and lettering artist working at a company on branding campaigns, but moved to St. Pete six years ago to start his own studio. He had considered California, but there “was something about St. Pete,” he said, adding that it is relatively small but has room to grow. That the city is so welcoming of the arts and artists sealed the deal for him, adding St. Pete was the right choice for him.

“The business just got bigger and bigger,” said Gomez, who meant that figuratively and literally, as he soon became part of the city’s cadre of mural creators, painting the larger works along with hundreds of signs and lettering projects.

One of his better-known murals was the “Sunshine on my Mind” mural on 3rd Avenue South. At 135 feet across, it easily can be seen by drivers on I-275, he said.

A guide map of St. Pete’s murals shows some 60 scattered around the downtown area, and Marks and the Arts Alliance have plans to meld some of them with the performing arts using digital technology. The aim of the Murals in Mind program is to use Pixelstix software available for tablets and smartphones that would allow people viewing a mural to point their device’s camera at a smart plaque adjacent to a mural, which will then play curated companion music, read a poem, or perhaps play video to enhance the experience, Marks said. It will be much more than just an entertainment enhancer.

Artist Case Maclaim of Germany created this stunning mural at last year’s St. Petersburg SHINE Mural Festival. The annual event resulted in 19 new murals coming to the downtown area, with local, state, national and international artists participating.
Artist Case Maclaim of Germany created this stunning mural at last year’s St. Petersburg SHINE Mural Festival. The annual event resulted in 19 new murals coming to the downtown area, with local, state, national and international artists participating. [ Michelle Tannu ]

“It’s not therapy, but the hope is to affect people’s mental health in a positive way,” she said. “It can shift the energy of your day to a more positive light.”

Marks said a similar program has been running in Flint, Michigan, and has proven a beneficial addition in that community.

Once in place, the technology also can be used for fun activities, as well, like delivering clues for a scavenger hunt.

The Arts Alliance has received a grant to get the project started, and is seeking additional funding to make the system a reality. When launched, the first implementation would include 12 murals with informational plaques.

Until then, Marks said anyone can tour the city’s murals, enjoying the art and learning about the artists at stpeteartsalliance.org. By clicking the SHINE festival link on the site’s home page, there is a map showing the locations of each of the city’s murals, the dates they were created, and the artists who created them.

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