The more than 70 murals along the streets and alleys of Midtown Reno hug buildings, walls and fences – and all tell stories.
They portray events, holidays, old friends, departed companions, legends and lost loves. They are populated with current events, historical figures and familiar animals. Viewers peering from vehicles capture a glimpse of those tales; those who linger near them begin to see much more.
A mural’s subjects may draw attention to social issues such as human rights and immigration, teach local history, or celebrate the region’s flora and wildlife. They evoke emotion or celebrate a landscape, event or person. The open-air art is a visual language of the city.
Geralda Miller, executive director of Art Spot Reno, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting local art and artists, speaks mural. She leads mural tours twice each month in the Midtown and Downtown districts. She also is chairwoman of the Reno Arts and Culture Commission.
Miller, who has been conducting the tours for five years, begins the one-hour walks by telling patrons the difference between “graffiti and murals”: permission.
From tagging to commissions
“A lot of mural artists started out painting in alleyways illegally,” she said during a tour of murals in north Midtown on Dec. 12. “They would get cited, but they would keep painting.” Add permission to what was once considered vandalism and the artists move from the shadows to a spotlight. “Now they are being commissioned by the businesses,” Miller said.
Commissions paid to established mural artists may be as much as $5,000 to $10,000 for a large work. Newer artists may clear $1,000 or more. Artists that began with cans of spray paint in dark alleys may graduate to being in demand in cities around the country or the world.
Joe C. Rock is among Reno’s most prolific and talented muralists. He began his vocation furtively and under occasional threat of a jail sentence. His work now graces outdoor surfaces throughout Reno. His influences include street graffiti and comic books, local history and classical fine art.
His visions meet at the junction of realism and imagination. The topics are as serious as racism or as whimsical as trees, flowers, birds and words springing from the head of a pensive man’s portrait.
History, whimsy and social justice
“With COVID to cancer, from race riots and bigotry being placed front and center, to everyone having their opinions forced upon the world and down our throats, it’s so hard to disconnect and not be affected by it; it’s so hard to be present and not be affected by it!” Rock wrote in a Facebook post in October. “I’ve been trying to do both! Just focus on the good, keep your head up and sometimes you don’t have to be OK with everything and not everything is a win.”
Rock’s murals always include an image of a three-point crown, homage to the late street artist Jean-Michael Basquiat, who also used a crown for his tag. “That’s his trademark,” Miller said. “You will always find it somewhere in his artwork.” In a video produced by the Reno Gazette-Journal, Rock explained the story behind his mural painted on the plywood coverings on the Reno City Hall building. The building was damaged in the riot that followed a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in June.
The mural has been moved outside the Bruka Theater, where it will be on display until January.
Murals are born to die
“If you take a longer look at Joe’s murals you see more and more,” Miller said. “He’ll have things on there that make statements. You start seeing social issues that make you think.”
Murals last longer than a sand painting, but they are far less permanent than a portrait hanging in a museum.
While leading the tour group past an apartment complex, Miller pointed out a pale gray fence that had once been painted with a series of colorful faces. “Then the complex was sold and one of the first things the new owner did was paint over the mural,” she said. “In 2017 artists painted 35 murals for the Art Spot Reno’s Mural Expo in 2017. Today, at least 10 are gone. Businesses get sold and buildings get torn down. The murals are here today, gone tomorrow.”
The ephemeral nature of the art matches the city, always fluid and changing. Artists leave town and new ones appear. New styles and ideas flourish on brick, plaster, wood and concrete. Sometimes murals that once were visible from the street get surrounded by new buildings or become hidden.
Some landlords preserve art
“Look through the slats,” Miller said, as the tour group walked through an alley between Stewart and Moran streets and paused at a wooden fence. By gazing through the gaps in the fence, another Joe C. Rock mural featuring a landscape of Carson City could be seen.
New owners of a property sometimes value the art that surrounds them. When the building at 777 S. Center St. was home to the Maytan Music Center, artist Erik Burke painted giant adults and children playing a keyboard on the side of the structure. The building was sold, but the mural was carefully preserved in the renovation of the building that now houses Midtown Diamonds.
Often, there are features in the murals that aren’t readily noticed. For example, Erik Burke’s large painting of flowers and water on a building across the street from the federal courthouse on Virginia Street has what appear to be ghostly loops and swirls, spread like a web across the mural. “It’s Erik’s thumbprint,” Miller said.
Burke’s work also seems to grace some surface of nearly every square block of north Midtown. His “Follow the Queen” on a fence in an alley off Moran Street, tells the tale of a bee, a river and the history of Reno. His “Back in the Day is Now” mural at 645 S. Virginia St. is an explosion of orange flowers on a blue background.
An embarrassment of riches
The works of Pan Panoja (Reno’s poet laureate), Jeremy Paskell, Bryce Chisholm, VAKA, Kelly Peyton, Kaitlin Bryson, Jamie Darragh and Sebastian Coolidge and others can be found on the city’s buildings, fences and bridges.
Visiting artists also contribute to the city’s sprawling gallery. Louis Masai, an artist from the United Kingdom, in 2016 painted a portrait of a Lahontan cutthroat trout decorated with colorful patterns at 743 S. Virginia St. On the tour, Miller also draws attention to public sculptures, such as the blown-glass flowers sprouting from a tile base by Peter Hazel on Holcomb Avenue north of Moran Street.
Experience in many cities has shown that murals reduce the amount of gang-tagging, Miller said. “It happens, but not very often,” she said. “It’s a respect thing, of one artist for another.”
‘Pretend you are a tourist’
Some of the guests on Miller’s Dec. 12 tour were recent arrivals in Reno, but not Bob Quilitch, who has lived in the Biggest Little City since 1973. He said he wanted to go on a mural tour for at least two years and finally signed up.
“I wanted to get to know Reno better,” Quilitch said. “I’ve lived here a long time, but I believe in the saying that when you want to really see your city ‘pretend that you are a tourist in your own town and do the things that tourists do.’ I did and I learned a lot.”
Art Spot Reno schedules mural tours twice a month at a cost of $10 per adult. South Midtown tours are slated on the second Saturday of every month; Downtown tours are held on the first Saturdays. Groups may also schedule private tours. Details can be found on the tours page on the Art Spot web site.