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Splashy signs of the times

Businesses using murals as colorful marketing tools

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Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2012 4:30 am | Updated: 8:38 am, Tue Aug 21, 2012.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Businesses once decorated their buildings with their names in block letters.

A bit boring, perhaps, but they served the purpose — massive advertisements, landmarks often visible from blocks away.

But today’s businesses are adding another element to their facades — creativity.

In Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District, law office now has an eagle soaring across its brick facade.

At a multitenant building, a two-story pink monster seems ready to reach out its red-painted talons to grab a passer-by. A seven-story building showcases two Kansas City products made nearby with a steaming cup of Roasterie coffee and a chilled bottle of Boulevard beer. A measuring tape swirls across the side of a men’s clothing store.

And some of the once-faded signs? They’ve been repainted to become part of a building’s new brand.

“You see these ghost images that were part of the urban environment ... and we erased it,” said John O’Brien, owner-director of the Dolphin gallery in the West Bottoms. “Somehow it stopped, but everything comes back around.”

One city that has gone all-out for murals — and has seen commercial, tourism and community benefits — is Philadelphia.

The murals are a community effort, so they bring neighborhoods together in the planning stages. Afterwards, residents tend to see their neighborhoods differently, as do developers, and the murals are often catalysts for economic development.

They also cut down on graffiti. Indeed, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program started as a graffiti abatement program in 1984 and evolved into a pro-arts program. More than 3,600 murals have since been created, and about half remain. Some were painted over with new works, and others have made way for redevelopment.

Amy Johnston, information and events specialist for the program, said murals could say much about a neighborhood and the people who lived and worked there.

“We have found the process of creating a mural together connects people whose paths might not otherwise meet,” Johnston said. “A sort of network forms around the mural, and the positive experience of working together to create a mural helps them imagine other things. Sometimes the story is just beginning when the mural is completed. Art ignites change.”

For individual business, murals also can be a way to get their information out in a different way, Johnston said.

But outdoor murals don’t come cheap, with Philadelphia putting many of its larger pieces around $25,000. Along with paying for an artist to design and paint the wall, there are other costs involved. The wall must be professionally cleaned. Mortar joints of brick buildings may need tuck-pointing. Then the wall often will need two coats of sealer, then gallons and gallons of paint for the mural. Then the artwork — exposed to elements year-round — has to be maintained.

Dawn Taylor, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Kansas City, said businesses should consider hiring artists who have an eye for large-scale pieces and experience in painting murals.

Other decisions will include: Where is it going to go? What artist and what style? What is the goal in displaying the piece? Is it going to be used to build the company’s brand? Is it going to offend someone? How long is it going to be there? Who is going to view the piece? Who owns the copyright? How is it going to be maintained?

Google Fiber’s community focus is enforced in the decor of its new showroom in Kansas City — from the shuttlecock chandeliers that are a nod to the outdoor sculptures at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to a mural that wraps around the front of its “Fiber Space Hospitality” stand.

Lee’s Summit, Mo., artist Alexander Austin worked with Google on a mostly black-and-white design that incorporates Kansas City’s history and its Google future. A saxophone blows out shuttlecocks, along with a Kansas City Star business page highlighting Silicon Prairie. Sporting Kansas City, Union Station, a train engine and a fountain are included, as well as a Google fiber running from one end of the mural to the other.

Jenna Wandres, a spokeswoman for Google, said, “Kansas City has such a vibrant culture, and Alexander’s mural brings that local flair into our Fiber Space.”

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