Heights Walls take public art in Tampa to new heights

Twenty feet in the air, Tony Krol slowly descends in his bucket lift from the outline sketch of koi fish swirling around the façade of the empty building on 302 N. Dale Mabry -- soon to be a new Yummy House location.

“We started doing these mural projects back in 2015. There were many conversations we had over the years with people that wanted a SHINE mural festival or wanted this area to be like Wynwood. We knew murals were going to come to Tampa with what’s going on in St. Pete, and this is something we’ve always wanted to do for a while anyways,” Krol says.

Spearheaded by Tony Krol and Michelle Sawyer of Illsol, Heights Walls is their new initiative to bring murals to neighborhoods that need it the most -- not just in the Heights area, but throughout Tampa. While SHINE is a week-long mural festival that focuses on walls in the downtown area, Heights Walls’ interest lies in putting up art in unexpected places throughout the year.

“We are friends with everyone who runs that program and don’t want to be SHINE. These murals are going up in areas that need some sort of vibrancy to give people a sense of pride in where they live. Instead of having one festival, we will have many events all year long as we get them and have a little block party once the project is finished,” Krol says.

Say hello to the new Café Hey

Heights Walls’ first major project will be the transformation of the shutters of Café Hey, thanks to funding from the Gobioff Foundation of Tampa. Krol and Sawyer have been exhibiting with Café Hey owner S. Cheong Choi over the years and worked closely with him to select artists that they’ve worked with before.

“The people who know our business already see our shutters as iconic if not a bit nondescript, so now it will be something interesting to look at. We’re a small café and we can be hard to see, so this will definitely attract more attention. Plus, it fits our aesthetic,” says Choi.

Eric Z. Goodnight is one of the artists -- along with Jujmo, Charles Gallagher, Cory Robinson, and SooJin Brown -- selected for this project. He has been a long-time patron of Café Hey, and even initiated their Drink and Draw nights. Typically, murals are only given to those with extensive experience, but he is one of the three artists in the group that have never done a mural before.

“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I’ve never gotten the opportunity. It’s cool because I’ve worked at fairly large scale before, but it’s not my typical thing. This kind of work is made to be appreciated at a distance, so I want to focus on design and good color instead of things like mark making,” Z. Goodnight says.

Sawyer also will have a wall space on the café, with her signature work of assorted Florida native birds and plants.

“Everybody who has come by has been very positive, and we’ve had a lot of questions about the project. Instead of seeing grimy shutters, it’s a bit more inviting and everyone’s been super happy about it. At this point, something is better than nothing since Café Hey could have gotten fines for the graffiti that was put on the shutters,” Sawyer says.

Graffiti vs. murals

There’s a lot of crossover between mural art and graffiti work. Many mural artists -- like Tes One or Bask -- initially got their beginnings tagging buildings or doing graffiti, but the difference all boils down to permission of the property owner.

“We’re not trying to say with this project that those taggers don’t belong, but let’s have a conversation about it and see if there’s a wall that maybe is for what they do. We’re also not trying to bring artists in to ‘revamp’ the neighborhood; we’re basically putting art in areas where people from that neighborhood can be happy. We want our artists to talk with the community and find out what they want to create a more collaborative public art aspect rather than just have the artist do whatever they want. There is going to be a need for curated walls or else you’re just going to see a bunch of stuff go up where people are just doing their own thing,” Krol says.

An artist’s time = money

As of now, Heights Walls has been approaching businesses and asking that they commit to one artist’s time or materials -- like primer -- in return for the mural.

“They have to see value in this to make it work. We’re trying to budget our projects out where our artists get paid and we can even have an event to go with it to bring attention to the sponsors. We’re working on getting sponsors, and we hope to be set up as a nonprofit by the first of the year,” Krol explains.

Continually working with local artists on murals, Heights Walls also plans on bringing in outside artists for projects. Sponsors would help bring in artists like It’s a Living, a script-based muralist living in Brooklyn, to Tampa.

“He would be a great inclusion in Tampa because we do our type-centric art show at Illsol,” Krol says.

What’s over the horizon?

After finishing their current projects, Heights Walls is scoping out their next mural for the University area in addition to their “Dream Walls” endeavor.

“Another project we’re doing is with the Dream Center of Tampa is called ‘Dream Walls’ which is a spinoff of these mural projects, except we’re working with kids from the neighborhood. We’ll go out with them and identify a wall and ask them what they’d like to see in their neighborhood,” Krol says.

Each semester they have an art class where they learn about the process of murals from the sketch all the way to scaling up and painting it. Learning lettering and sign painting is also a valuable skill that would be taught.

“We want to mentor these kids and show them that this is something they could do. The maker trade is so big now, so hand-painted things are going to make a comeback,” Krol explains.

Somehow making time in between these projects with Heights Walls, Krol and Sawyer will be working on their city-commissioned mural in West Tampa’s Salcines Park. The artists will be hosting discussions on Dec. 5 and Dec. 7 at the West Tampa Branch Library to get inspiration and ideas for their mural design so that it resonates with the community. Check their Facebook page for specifics.

If interested in sponsorship or donating to the Heights Walls initiative, you can email Tony Krol.

Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”
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