As guests came and went from the Ramada Inn at 1925 Harrison St. in late September, Ruben Ubiera was outside, sweating, shirtless, smiling, and guiding his paintbrush carefully over a long diagonal line that traversed the building's exterior. A diamond-patterned background that erupts with splashes of paint was being laid by the artist for his mural, titled appropriately 83 Degrees and Sunny. On top of the citrus-colored shapes, sinewy line drawings of people made the building come alive.
Despite the heat, he laughed and swore, "There's no place I'd rather be!"
Ubiera, 37, who was named Best Street Artist by our sister paper Miami New Times, was in his element. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Ubiera got interested in graffiti and street art when he was subsequently transplanted to the Bronx. A full scholarship at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale brought him to South Florida; he graduated in 1994. His work combines figurative drawing with urban and folkloric iconography. Street life is a major inspiration for his works, many of which are painted on found wood and other "indigenous" materials.
Ubiera was painting, with the blessing of the Ramada's owners, as part of the Downtown Hollywood Mural Project, spearheaded by local artist and designer Jill Weisberg with support from the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency. In August, the project launched with its first mural at 1832 S. Young Circle, by David "Lebo" LeBatard, an artist born and bred in Hollywood. His vibrant Be-Bop Into Outer Space uses his signature retro-style drawings of musicians to channel the historic midcentury modernism of Hollywood and give a nod to its current lively jazz scene.
Other walls in downtown Hollywood will soon undergo similar makeovers with bold works by local artists. A dozen murals are planned over the next two years. Hollywood has distinguished itself from other municipalities with its commitment to the arts; the mural project is another step in the city's evolution as a cultural hub.
Weisberg, another Hollywood native, painted murals herself in Miami's Wynwood and Design districts using the moniker "Fake Is Good," a comment on easy cultural acceptance of artifice. Her icon, a little thumbs-up, prefigured the obsession with Facebook-style "liking" that is now part of everyday vernacular. Weisberg's 2009 mural, composed of multiple wheat-pasted prints of hundred-dollar "Benjamins," was situated on 38th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. A tag line saying "What wouldn't you do?" was an ironic provocation to viewers to examine their own susceptibility to greed.
Since then, Weisberg has been immersed in the vibrant street art scene. Even her master's-degree thesis from Florida Atlantic University in 2010 explored the relationship between street art and advertising. Her role as artist quickly expanded to that of agent. She assisted international street art team the London Police — known for its large-scale murals with saucy "lads" cavorting among architectural/industrial imagery — in executing its work in Miami. Now a Dania Beach resident and creative director of boutique graphic design firm Schrift & Farbe, Weisberg brings her diverse skill set to her position as Downtown Hollywood Mural Project manager.
"I love artists, and I love being involved because this is my hometown," Weisberg says. "I'm aiming for an eclectic mix of contemporary artworks that will enhance the architecture."
Weisberg's expertise and curatorial vision attracted Jorge Camejo, director of the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency. Camejo explained that the project builds on Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober's initiative to present live music events in the city. Camejo hopes the murals will "activate an interesting scene downtown and will connect the wine-and-dine crowd with cultural events, drawing pedestrians beyond their usual haunts."
Ultimately, Camejo and Weisberg have "gateway" projects in mind, strategically placed artworks that will alert visitors that something special is afoot in the area. A building on the west edge of downtown, near the railroad tracks at Dixie Highway and Hollywood Boulevard, is one spot they have targeted for a makeover.
Weisberg coordinates with property owners who are interested in having a wall painted and also lines up artists, sticking to experienced, active ones who have gallery exhibits and mural works under their belts. Weisberg has already lined up murals by Luis Pinto, Daniel Fila, and Tatiana Suarez. (Disclosure: I will be producing a mural of my own in January 2013.)
Once Weisberg contacts an artist, together they select a building an owner has offered. Then the artist goes back to his or her drawing board to propose a work for that specific building. Once the owner approves an artist's rendering, it is then signed off by a committee composed of a city commissioner, a CRA rep, a representative of the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, and an individual from the community.
Artists might take about two weeks to paint their murals. Property owners pay nothing. The artists aren't paid for the mural per se, but they get a $1,000 performance fee from the CRA if they paint their works "live" during one of the Downtown Hollywood ArtWalks, which happen once a month.
Jessy Nite is scheduled to execute a mural at 1901 Harrison St. Originally from the New York City area, Nite landed in South Florida five years ago. She produced a large mural of a giant banana split called Money Hungry for the Wynwood Art Fair last year. Described by Weisberg as "a driven, driven, DRIVEN artist!," Nite produces works that are freewheeling celebrations of consumer culture and female energy. Her gallery pieces have used text and candy colors from the 1980s, with lots of food, bling, and typography, including interactive pieces involving mirrors and shadows cast on the walls.
For her mural, Nite is expected to wake up the building with a dynamic work composed of diagonal black and white striping and paintings of pastel-colored kaleidoscopic gems.
So far, area business owners seem psyched. Ben Schiff, who manages the property Nite will paint, says his building "offers the perfect site for a mural as it is a corner building that boasts a highly visible second floor."
New Age Cycles owner Reed Wallace thinks it will bring more traffic to his shop on the ground floor. "We love art, and downtown Hollywood is an arts district," Wallace says. "We're happy to help liven and brighten it up."
Weisberg is even more excited: "That corner is going to be a landmark!"
Weisberg says she's consciously looking for an equal distribution of male and female artists. "Women are underexposed in the art world at large but especially among the ranks of street artists," she says. (Weisberg's not alone in noticing; this year's annual street-art conference in Atlanta devoted its entire program to a lineup of 26 international female street artists.)
During the Downtown Hollywood ArtWalks, held from 7 to 10 p.m. the third Saturday of every month, artists will be working on their murals live. Nite is planning a party with a DJ for her painting event on Saturday, October 20. Since she holds down a full-time gig as an art director at an ad agency, she should be painting "sunup to sundown, all weekend long!" Come see the creative process in action.
Michelle Weinberg is an artist/writer working in Miami Beach. For more info, visit michelleweinberg.com.