Paint Louis was established in 1997 and has grown in the 25 years since.
The origins of Paint Louis
, the city’s annual celebration of graffiti and mural art, stretch back to the Delmar Loop in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Where the Chuck Berry statue is now, there was a wall that served as a meet-up spot for a wide swath of people from different backgrounds.
“You had like Grateful Dead hippy kids, skaters, metal kids, everyone just hanging out,” says John Harrington, Paint Louis cofounder and a member of hip-hop group Midwest Avengers. “The more we hung out, the more people started showing up.”
Eventually the group got kicked out of the space and moved to the West End. But then they got kicked out there, too. They tried Forest Park with similar success.
Sometime after the Great Flood of 1993, the group relocated to the area by the city’s floodwall.
“That was no man’s land,” Harrington says. “Nobody hung out there.” They’d found a home for what would eventually become Paint Louis, a community gathering every Labor Day weekend to paint a two-mile stretch of the floodway. This year marks the event’s 25 anniversary, and the cofounders have planned a special weekend — including a performance by rapper KRS-One — to commemorate it as well as a preview event, First Look, with Artists First
But things didn’t start out so organized.
At the same time the group settled by the flood wall, hip-hop had started to get really big, and the group expanded to include graffiti artists, break dancers, DJs and underground hip-hop acts. At night, people would turn on their cars’ lights onto the wall, and everyone would start painting.
Soon, it became an every-weekend activity, and the original crew began inviting more and more people to join. Graffiti artists from across the country began showing up.
“One year, we was like, ‘Yo man, we got like 300 people showing up … we can, you know, sell some water or sell some shirts or something like that,” he says. “We need to call it something.”
Parents and their children contribute to the graffiti murals as part of Paint Louis.
That was the start of Paint Louis, which got formalized in 1997.
"I’m happy that we’ve been able to keep it real and keep it on the ground for 25 years,” Harrington says. “Artists coming from around the country, around the world to like, see the new techniques, to see what new caps you got, to talk about politics within the graffiti world, West Coast and East Coast, north meet down south, Miami Beach, Seattle — everybody coming together.”
Keeping things going is an accomplishment, especially when you consider that the event’s organizers don’t take corporate sponsorships, instead paying for expenses out of pocket. For the most part, the city has been supportive of the event, except for a few years after 2001
, when artists painted beyond the designated areas, causing a permit hiatus. Since then, Harrington has been especially emphatic on what can and can’t be painted.
Paint Louis has grown in other ways since its inception. Alongside those artists painting the walls now are artistic vendors, like glass blowers, jewelry makers and sculptors. There’s even a masseuse, a dog rescue and some food, though those vendors must maintain their own permits, so people are fed mostly by runs to nearby fast-food establishments.
Thanks to word of mouth among the graffiti community, Paint Louis is perhaps more famous outside St. Louis than within. But that’s started to change.
“It’s really starting to catch on,” Harrington says. “People are starting to say, ‘Oh man, when’s Paint Louis this year? We’re really excited to see it.’”
That growth has begun to happen as Harrington and others have made efforts to reach out to the local community. For the last five years, they’ve included an event called Paint Littles where parents can bring children and teens to learn techniques.
“It’s kind of mentoring, pass on the art form,” he says. “It’s a way to get younger people involved.”
Another community event is the First Look with Artists First, an inclusive art studio in Maplewood that has programming aimed at underserved community members but is open for anyone’s walk-in use. From 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 27, the nonprofit will hold a kick-off anniversary event that will bring local graffiti artists to the Yale Green Space at Manchester Road and Yale Avenue in Maplewood to teach techniques and styles of street art.
Courtesy Artists First
The Artists First group paints in last year's Paint Louis.
They’ll paint the studio’s tables, some of which will be available during an evening auction. A group from Artists First will also be among those painting over Labor Day weekend.
“Both of our organizations, we’re about inclusivity and diversity,” says Maria Briceño, development coordinator for Artists First, who notes that Paint Louis’ invitation to work on the wall last year opened doors for them. “It was just an amazing opportunity to really highlight that people with disabilities can be artists, too. … We wanted to continue to work with people like that.”
“It just brings new artists into the fold,” Harrington says. “I think it’s good to have events like this where you can explain graffiti to people and explain art.”
Too many confuse graffiti art or street art with gang art and tagging, he says, which is different than muralism. Harrington has a vision of the city where many buildings are covered with graffiti murals, similar to Wynwood in Miami or even some areas of Kansas City.
But to get there, St. Louis will need a lot of artists and a lot of appreciators of graffiti art, which is where community engagement events come in.
“I’m trying to have a legacy,” Harrington says. “I’m trying to have Paint Louis go on forever.”
First Look: Paint Louis’ 25th Anniversary Kick off will take place from 11 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 27, at the Yale Green Space in Maplewood and from 6 to 8 p.m. at Artists First at 7190 Manchester Road, Maplewood. Paint Louis will take place Friday, September 2, through Monday, September 4, at the floodwall just south of the Arch. Paint Littles will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 3
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