How To Paint A Wall With A Dozen Strangers

A beginner's guide to public art in a small town

As the daughter of an artist (and an artist myself), I’ve always known that blank walls and unloved spaces are just opportunities in hiding. What I haven’t always known was how showing up in a new town, deciding that a team of strangers could paint a wall they didn’t own, and going about one’s business to make it happen was a bit audacious, to say the least.

Fortunately for me, this unawareness made it much easier to ask good questions, get projects started, and see them over the finish line. Before long, chalk art, colorful mailboxes, murals, and even sculptures made from bottles and cans began to litter my scrubby, sandy little beach town. Some projects I did with a team, other ones I did on my own.

Solo efforts in softcore vandalism

Logistics and time constraints notwithstanding, the most puzzling aspect of this endeavor was how frequently people asked me: “Where did you come up with this? And how did you manage to pull this off?” Gentle reader, I have no better answer than the extreme boredom and under-stimulation that often accompanies stay-at-home parenthood. However, should anyone wish to replicate something of my experience without the lifetime commitment of quitting one’s job and making more human beings, I have compiled a beginner’s guide based on my own first project. If you are seeking a way to spruce up your corner of town in a way that’s engaging, enjoyable, and more than a little chaotic, try Resident Urbanist’s easy new 15-step instructional guide for beautifying your city.

“How To Paint A Wall With a Dozen Strangers” -
No experience needed!*

*Audacity not included. Resident Urbanist and its partner writers are not financially or legally liable for any personal injury or property damage that may result from public art projects. User experience may vary. Reader discretion advised.

Villagers at work

Step Zero: Live in a small town. Find your local municipal code online. Search or [CTRL+F] for several key terms, such as “public art,” or “mural.” When nothing comes up, check it again. Repeat several times over the next few weeks. When you are confident that the word “mural” does not even appear in the city’s code, decide that it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Proceed to step one. 

Step One: Walk your neighborhood, slowly. Look around at the homes and businesses that line the sidewalks. Stop and talk to folks outside. Go into a shop and see if the owner can spare a minute to chat. Who do they see every day? What is their street like? Is it noisy, calm, chaotic, or predictable? Do they like doing business here? Repeat this “walk and talk” several times. Try to find someone different with each repetition. Be curious. Have no agenda. 

Step Two: Find a blank wall. A big wall. One that is visible from a busy street or pedestrianized area. Bonus points if it’s under two stories, has a parking lot in front of it, and/or is frequently vandalized. If that property is empty, find another one. Landlords don’t let you paint vacant buildings. 

Any of these will do.

Step Three: When you find a good wall with an occupied building, speak to someone inside. Take your time doing so. Let the owner help customers before resuming conversation. Do not be in a rush. Tell them you’re looking to make your neighborhood a little nicer and ask them if they’d like to be involved. They will mention their blank wall outside. Suggest a mural of some sort. They will be uncertain. Tell them to think about it. When they tell you their landlord won’t let them, ask for their contact info. You will handle Landlord. 

Step Four: Call Landlord. Call a second time and leave a voicemail. Open with a polite greeting. Tell them you are organizing a public beautification project and their building is perfect for it. Sign off by telling them your name and phone number and wishing them a good day. You may have to repeat this step several times before moving onto Step Five.

Step Five: Receive the call from Landlord. Repeat what you said about public beautification. When they ask if you’re saying their property is ugly, laugh politely and remind them that the most beautiful art in the world only gets put on blank walls (you can also say “Yes,” if the vibes are right). When they ask what it will cost, assure them that paint is cheap. Ask them if they have any concepts or styles already in mind. They will say no. Make an appointment to meet them at their property and discuss the mural.

Step Six: Prep for the meeting. Get a drawing pad. Go to the hardware store and obtain lots of paint color cards. Find concept pictures with a wide range of styles and color schemes. Find ones composed primarily of simple shapes, with few small details. Remember that this wall is highly textured stucco. Random strangers of all ages will be painting this mural; it is not the time for Monet-style impressionism. Alternatively, it could be the perfect time for Monet-style impressionism.

Step Seven, Option A: Meet with Landlord. Ask them their budget. Reassure them that paint is cheap. Show them the concepts and ask them which ones they like best. They will pick three completely different ideas. They will not know which colors they like. Show them your color cards, and go through the concepts again. They may use terms like “perspective” or “gouache” incorrectly, so ask them things like “When you say ‘art deco’ do you mean this?” and show them sample pictures. Draw out concepts while you talk. Repeat this step several times until you are both excited about the mural concept. 

Step Seven, Option B: Meet with Landlord. Ask them their budget. Reassure them that paint is cheap. Show them the concepts and ask them which ones they like best. They will present their own concept, drawn to scale, in its finished state. It will be oddly specific and rooted in an obscure facet of local history. You will ask them if you can tweak the design. They will say yes. When you present it to them again, they will say no. Proceed with original design.

Step Seven, Option C: Meet with Landlord. Ask them their budget. Reassure them that paint is cheap. Have a credentialed, volunteer graphic designer show them a completed design. Amaze Landlord. Proceed to Step Eight.*

*Important Note: It is at this point that the reader should consider reaching out to local government, even if there is no law on the books regarding public art. Cities are more likely to say “Yes” when they have a concept to evaluate, and they are not being asked for money.

Step Eight: Draft an estimate. Send it to Landlord. Find as much good quality paint as you can at places like Habitat for Humanity. Rent scaffolding from the local hardware store. Take stock of all the accumulated supplies stacked in your garage. Buy several five-gallon buckets. Buy more paintbrushes. Buy a few new cans of paint. Save the receipts for Landlord.

Step Nine: Select a weekend to paint the mural, preferably a month or two in advance. Take note of the weather. Forget to note where the sun will be at different times of the day, and plan (unwisely) to be on site from dawn to dusk. Despite your misgivings, use the Nextdoor app to regularly send out calls for artists with the relevant date, time, and location. Collect contact information from those who show interest. Check in with Landlord and/or Business Owner about once a week until Painting Day arrives. Remind them to have the wall pressure-washed. Pressure-wash the wall yourself, if you have to.

Step Ten: Two weeks before Painting Day, contact everyone on your interest list. Tell them to bring any brushes and dropcloths that they have. Tell them to bring sunscreen, hats, and water. Ask them to leave any children under 10 at home (they will ignore this).

Step Eleven: On Painting Day, show up an hour ahead of time. Bring all of your supplies to the site. Bring coolers full of ice. Bring a shade tent. Have your partner or friend help you set up the scaffolding after discovering you cannot do it yourself. Field questions from passersby and/or police officers. Turn on the Boom Box. Get stoked. It is Painting Day.

A blank and often-vandalized wall in the author’s neighborhood

Step Twelve: Paint the mural. Give each volunteer a concrete task to do. Show them the design. Give them each their own cup of paint. Answer questions and give them tips when they ask. Encourage them. Touch up their mistakes. Receive more volunteers. Rotate the first volunteers out and the new ones in. Move ladders. Forget to eat lunch. Enlist a new volunteer who was just walking by that day and decided to help. Adjust scaffolding. Refill water bottles. Offer snacks and Gatorade. Make regular progress checks from the other side of the street. Rinse brushes for volunteers. Dump water buckets. Refill paint cups. Pull a kid’s hands out of the paint. Repeat for nine hours. Be reminded vaguely of herding cats. 

Step Thirteen: When the chaos is at a minimum, or at least supervised by someone else, help paint the mural. Pay close attention to how awesome it feels to be part of making something better. Remember this feeling the next time you’re eight feet in the air, exhausted, hungry, and wondering why you’re doing this again.

The author in her natural habitat

Step Fourteen: Finish the mural. Thank every volunteer for their time. Hand them another water bottle. Thank them again. Put all the supplies into giant buckets and plan to clean them tomorrow, or maybe never. Clean up any spills in front of the wall. Show the finished mural to Landlord and/or Business Owner. They will stare a little too long. You will briefly wonder if they hate it. They will exclaim things like “Oh my goodness!” and “What a difference!” They will not hate it. They will love it. They will wonder why they did not do this sooner.

Step Fifteen: Step back and look at the completed project. You did it. You did it. You actually did it. You had an idea and some spare time and you rallied a bunch of neighbors and you did it. Look at you go. Take two aspirin with an entire pizza. Sleep 13 hours.

A recent picture of the completed mural, based on artwork by local artist and Dunite, Elwood Decker

Optional Subsequent Steps

Step Sixteen: Walk, bike, or drive past your completed project daily for three years. Forget that the wall used to be ugly and vandalized. See cracks in the sidewalk, and the loud traffic, and the other blank walls. Grumble about all that is wrong with your neighborhood. Resent that you are not independently wealthy with endless availability to fix everything. You will forget that there is no such thing as an ethical billionaire. You will forget that over a dozen people you didn’t know gave up their Saturday to paint that wall, and that none of them are billionaires.

Step Seventeen: Walk to the hardware store for the garden sale. Look across the street. See new shapes and colors where there used to be nothing.

Formerly nothing

Formerly nothing

Walk to the new mural in your neighborhood. Realize that this happened without you. Rejoice in this fact. Stare at it a little too long. People will wonder if you hate it. Say something like “Oh my goodness!” and “What a difference!”

You do not hate it.

You love it. You. Love it.

You will wonder why they did not do this sooner.

Krista Jeffries is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Originally from Virginia Beach she is a married mother of three currently living on California’s Central Coast. Her many adventures have taken her to healthcare, public art, housing advocacy, and four countries on three continents. She currently serves on the board of the local Housing Authority and is one of the founding members of SLO County YIMBY. She has previously written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and New Times San Luis Obispo. You can follow her on the website formerly known as Twitter.

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