The paint was barely dry on one of Buffalo’s newest murals when Dr. Christopher Hauglid, who lives a stone’s throw away at the Mentholatum on Niagara Street, gave the floral tapestry a thumbs-up.
“It beautifies this up-and-coming area, and represents the revitalization of Niagara Street and the whole Buffalo area,” said Hauglid, a resident at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
It is the latest example of an expansion of public art that is bringing bursts of color and conversation pieces to city streets, thanks to the artists, community leaders and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The murals, proponents say, bring vibrancy that adds a sense of identity and can boost local businesses, especially in blighted areas.
The Niagara Street mural by indigenous artist Nicole Cherry, titled “1800s Bikes in Vines,” is planted on the side of a brick building at 1330 Niagara St., soon to be home to a second Campus WheelWorks.
It was done through Albright-Knox’s Public Art Initiative. The program has been a catalyst for outdoor murals, partnering with Erie County and the City of Buffalo to commission 18 wall paintings since 2014. Five have been completed since the beginning of the year.
But dozens of other murals have also popped up around the city. The Buffalo News found 91, though the exact number is unknown. Emerson Barr, the Buffalo Arts Commission’s executive director, said the city doesn’t keep track of murals painted on private property.
In many cases, the artists have involved community members by seeking their feedback and enlisting them to help paint.
“I do think it signals a kind of hunger for more cultural activity in our public spaces,” said Aaron Ott, the Albright-Knox’s curator of public art.
The outdoor paintings are most concentrated on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, where nine murals alone have gone up in the past two years, including the brand-new one of Mark Twain and John T. Lewis by Eduardo Kobra.
But about a dozen outside murals each can also be found on the East Side, on the West Side, downtown, and in Elmwood Village and Allentown. They’re on buildings, shops, schools and factories, but also on a fence and along a railroad bridge.
They range in size from Louise Jones’ sprawling 80-foot-by-160-foot “Wildflowers for Buffalo” on the side of the downtown Sinclair building and “The Freedom Wall,” featuring portraits of 28 African American historical figures that wraps around Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street, to paintings resembling postcards welcoming people to Larkin, Seneca-Babcock, Kaisertown, South Buffalo and the City of Buffalo.
There are veteran muralists from outside the region — some whose work, like Eduardo Kobra and Alice Mizrachi, has taken them around the country and the world — and locals like Ali Kolaga, who as a 16-year-old incoming junior at City Honors School is among the youngest.
“The murals have a mass appeal, but they’re also quality art,” said Lawrence Brose, executive director of CEPA Gallery. “They are transforming communities in this really powerful way that now makes them destinations.”
‘Welcome to the neighborhood’
The Broadway Market isn’t the only destination at Broadway and Fillmore.
Visitors have also been beating a path to the outside of B-way More Unisex Salon at 751 Fillmore Ave., a short distance from the intersection. The attraction is the “Welcome Wall,” a mural completed in 2017 by Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez that presents the words “Welcome to the Neighborhood” in 13 languages spoken in the Broadway-Fillmore area.
“People come by every day to stand in front and take pictures,” said an amused Arlynda Ray, the shop’s owner. “We have had people come out and do videos in front of it.
“It’s a conversational piece, for sure,” Ray laughed.
There are more than a dozen exterior murals on Buffalo’s East Side. Ray, noting the invigorating effect murals can have on a neighborhood, hopes to see more. “We could use more, especially in this neighborhood, to get Broadway and Fillmore spruced back up,” she said.
Several blocks away, at 1131 Broadway, Muhammad Zaman’s mural also celebrates the connections between people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The Bangladesh-born artist’s work is called “Our Colors Make Us Beautiful,” influenced by the three languages he speaks — English, Bengali and Arabic.
The East Side also has the city’s longest mural, across from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. “The Freedom Wall,” a tour de force by artists John Baker, Julia Bottoms, Chuck Tingley and Edreys Wajed, represents 28 African American historical figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm, Stokely Carmichael and Harriet Tubman.
It’s not uncommon to see people walking around or reading the text panels about the larger-than-life people before them.
There are other murals intended to speak to a community’s diversity or ethnic pride.
Earlier this year, on the West Side, the Philadelphia-based artist Betsy Casanas led a community effort to create “Patria, Sera Porque Quisiera Que Vueles, Que Sigue Siendo Tuyo Mi Vuelo,” translated as “Homeland, Perhaps it is Because I Wish to See You Fly, That My Flight Continues to Be Yours.” The sprawling mural, featuring three women of Hispanic, African and Indian heritage, wraps around Jersey and Niagara streets.
The celebration of Hispanic and Latino culture along the Avenida San Juan corridor on Niagara Street is near Max Collins’ wheat-pasted mural of the late Puerto Rican icon and Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente.
Casimiro Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, said the emphasis on Hispanic history and heritage has changed the landscape of the entire corridor.
“We’re very proud of that mural,” he said, noting two more murals addressing Hispanic history and culture are planned.
On Hertel Avenue, Delaware Council Member Joel Feroleto said the murals are a boon for local businesses.
“When you have density and murals, it attracts visitors,” Feroleto said. “The foot traffic is good for the street and for businesses.”
The Albright-Knox has played an important role in helping develop some of the murals, Feroleto said. The Hertel Business Association, the North Buffalo Organization, Zoom Copy and local artists have helped on others.
The Elephant House, too
Whimsical and abstract images are also well represented among the city’s murals. Both are found in Daniel Galas’ “72 Jewett” — 10 wall paintings on the Koch Metal Spinning building at Jewett and Halbert streets.
The gold and black metallic painted murals feature local institutions and familiar sights, from the Kensington Water Tower and St. Mary’s School for the Deaf to the former Bennett High School and the former Elephant House at the Buffalo Zoo.
Erik Koch, Koch Metal Spinning’s president, said he was hesitant at first when the Albright-Knox and the Tri-Main Center approached him about putting a mural on his building, but is pleased with the result.
“I thought it might spruce up the neighborhood, and it came out great and has been a huge improvement,” Koch said. “We get a lot of comments, even from customers from Rochester who said they came by my building on a weekend to enjoy the public artwork.”
The increase in murals in Buffalo mirrors what is occurring in other cities across the United States. Mural Arts Philadelphia, an anti-graffiti initiative that began in 1984, has produced over 3,600 murals by mobilizing public and private funds. Philadelphia is seen as the mural capital of the United States, but numerous cities, including Cleveland, Detroit and New York, and now Buffalo, have gone mural-happy in recent years.
The Albright-Knox’s Ott said the museum’s relationship with the county and city is unlike any other museum collaboration in the country. The partnership has produced sculptures and artistic billboards as well as murals.
“We see a lot of great works produced throughout North America, and we certainly hope to be among them so people take notice of what’s happening regionally,” Ott said.
New murals are also helping to refresh downtown at a time when the business district is experiencing a rebirth.
Steve Robinson’s mural-in-progress, featuring boomboxes, high tops and peacocks, is stretching across the facade of the Starlight Studio and Art Gallery at 340 Delaware Ave.
Felipe Pantone’s “Optichromie – BUF,” a collage of multicolored pixels and black-and-white geometric shapes, recently went up on the Washington Street side of Town Ballroom. And Logan Hicks’ “Walking Back Time,” a layered work of stencils completed weeks ago where a luncheonette and more recently an oyster bar operated, presents a view of Niagara Square from Court Street.
Sue Priamo, who owns Fera’s Electric Tower Cafe that looks out on the mural, said “Walking Back Time” draws raves from customers and co-workers.
“We just love it,” Priamo said. “All my customers are like, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful.’ ”
Priamo loves the effect murals can have. She is also enthusiastic about another created a few blocks away in 2018 — Louise Jones’ awe-inspiring “Wildflowers for Buffalo” at 465 Washington St.
In the mural, the flowers — including red clover, burdock, chicory, thistle and other wildflowers — stretch across two buildings, refusing to be contained.
“I’m a gardener, and those flowers are as close to real-looking as you’re going to see painted on a wall,” Priamo said.