If you walk around NoMa’s Metropolitan Branch Trail this week, you will witness an enormous vibrant orange tiger emerging from a tropical jungle, a scenic pink cloud sunset and a black stallion led by a woman in a blue dress all coming to life. No, it’s not a hallucination. Through Septmeber 18, local and international artists are coming together to paint murals along the trail for the sixth DC Walls mural festival (formerly known as POW! WOW!).
This year international artists return to the festival after last year’s Covid-19 safety concerns and travel restrictions not permitting them. In addition to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, artists will paint murals throughout NoMa, including at 301 N St. NE and 327 S St. NE.
When checking in with the artist and brainpower coordinating the festival, Kelly Towles, he was on his way to pick up one of the featured international artists from the airport. He spoke on the differences between last year and this year’s festival.
“This year, we’re back to having artists fly-in,” Towles said. “Everyone is vaccinated, so we get to hang out, actually do the peer exchange and not be scared. It’s a nice breath of fresh air. It’s not really anything different than two years ago [before Covid].”
Although the festival is mostly back to normal, Towles also emphasized safety is still a top priority.
“We still want to make sure that people are staying safe,” Towles said. “So, for our opening day at Alethia Tanner Park, we have a DJ, a food truck and it’s gonna be more picnic-style — instead of a massive event and packing people in.”
With a wide range of global and local talent, the point of the festival remains the same as it has every year: to showcase D.C. to the art world while continuing to expand Washington’s street art and uplift the community. None of the murals are permanent, but the rotating and continued presence of mural work in D.C. — especially in the NoMa neighborhood — transforms the way people view the District’s art scene.
“There’s a reason NoMa has earned the reputation as the ‘mural capital of D.C.,’ and that reason is Kelly Towles and his successful live mural festival,” president and CEO of the NoMa BID Maura Brophy said. “Kelly and the fellow artists he recruits have delivered more than 80 original works of art to NoMa since the festival first launched in 2016.”
For Towles, his focus is improving the community and making everyone feel welcomed. He has three mural content rules he’s strictly enforced since the start of the annual festival: no sex, no violence, no politics.
As Towles explained, “We’re here to beautify the community; it has to have the vibe of positivity.”
But, he does not want to stifle the artists either. Every other subject matter is fair game. Due to multiple festival sponsors and the artists volunteering their time, artists have more opportunity to paint what they like compared to standard commissioned projects.
“The artists get creative freedom,” Towles said. “It’s up to them what they want to paint. They’re going to do something phenomenal because we trust them, and we know that they’re amazing.”
And while Towles is excited for the return of visiting artists, half of the 18 selected featured artists are from the DMV, like Kimchi Juice and PVMT84. Towles made an intentional point to represent local artists as prominently as internationally acclaimed ones.
“Local artists should get this platform just as much as anybody else, and we should shine D.C.’s artists and show how talented we are.”
Including both local and international artists also creates space for the District’s artists to connect and network with the visiting muralists.
“The artists that come in from out of town are famous in their own right. They’re rock stars in the art world. And [upcoming local artists] get to work and talk with each other. Everybody exchanges information.”
After the festival, Towles noted that companies looking to commission future projects often seek out the festival’s artists. Beyond work connections, though, DC Walls provides a space for all the artists to bond and make meaningful, long-term friendships.
“It’s like spring vacation,” Towles said. “I get lunches sponsored every day. We’re having a family meal tonight at Maketto. I invite all the artists out, and we get to hang. It’s amazing I can help facilitate connections, and everyone basically becomes family.”
Artists featured at DC Walls Festival are working on their murals from September 12-18. To learn more about the artists, where to find the new murals and walking tours, visit DC Walls’ website or Instagram: dc-walls.com // @dcwallsfestival
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