When I thought to write an article on DC Street art, I was intending this to be a fun story of us searching for colorful murals hidden throughout the city. Seeing these murals in person and learning about the inspiration behind each piece of art was a different experience than expected. Many of these artists were born and raised in DC with a strong attachment to the people and history of the city. Their work is a reflection of their lives, relationships, experiences, and beliefs.
The recent emergence of street art in the district is in large part due to MuralsDC, an organization created to replace illegal graffiti with artistic pieces. Since their work started, the organization has commissioned 141 murals by 60 artists across 70 Washington DC neighborhoods. By seeing their work and learning about their origins, I feel closer to the city where I have spent so much of my time. (I grew up in the suburbs of DC.) I feel a deeper understanding and appreciation of the community, and I suppose that is a testament to the power of street art.
Not all of the atistic pieces listed below were comissioned by MuralsDC, nor are all of them created by native DC artists. Nonetheless, this article will highlight some of the more popular DC street art while paying homage to their creators.
Culture House – Painted by HENSE
700 Delaware Ave SW, Washington, DC 20024
The Culture House (formerly known as Blind Whino) is a non-profit community arts center with the objective “to provide youth, elders and everyone in between with an organic, art-inspired environment for both learning and creating within the arts culture”. Originally a Baptist Church built in 1886, the building is adorned with Victorian and Gothic architecture.
In 2012 artist Alex Brewer, also known as HENSE, completely transformed the exterior of the center using the walls as a canvas for vibrant and psychedelic art. The Atlanta native draws inspiration from graffitti writing and abstract painting to reinvent his chosen canvas.
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The Torch (Ben’s Alley Mural) – Painted by Aniekan Udofia
1211 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a popular item on any “dc popular eats” list. From locals to tourists and celebrities, everyone comes to try their famous half-smoke. Perhaps more photographed than their food, are the walls outside the flagship location on U Street. Originally painted in 2012, the artwork was beginning to peel and fade.
The owners of the landmark restaurant wanted to refresh the mural and in 2017, decided to let the community vote on who should be included on the newest rendition. 30,000 people voted and 15 African American legends of music, politics, and media were selected. Among those chosen include Mayor Muriel Bowser, Harriet Tubman, the Obamas, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and comedian Dave Chappelle.
Aniekan Udofia has become one of DC’s most prominent street artists. While The Torch is easily one of the most photographed murals in the city, he is also the artist behind such works as the gagged George Washington mural on U St. and the Frederick Douglass mural in Anacostia.
Mural of the “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” – Painted by John McConnell
3510 O Street NW, Washington DC
In 1974 the owners of the Georgetown home commissioned friend and painter John McConnell to replicate “The Great Wave” by Hokusai – an iconic piece of Japanese art. This piece is located just a short walk from bustling M street. It’s somewhat hidden location makes it a perfect place to snap a photo without all of the crowds.
Funkadelic George Washington – Painted by Madsteez
331 N Street NE, Washington, DC 20002
Tired of all the traditional patriotic portraits of our first president? Head to DC’s North East neighborhood to see a more “vibrant” portrayal of the former POTUS. Artist Madsteez created this street mural in support of the POW! WOW!, a movement for celebrating culture, music and art. The network of artists are name “POW!” for it’s impact that the art has on a person and “WOW!” for it’s reaction that art has on a viewer.
Interestingly, artist Madsteez is almost blind in one eye resulting in one he describes as seeing only whirlpools of paint. The result – a brilliant mix of eclectic style and vibrant color.
The DC Alley Museum– Various artists
Blagden Alley, Washington, DC 20001
Once an epicenter for poverty and struggle in the 1870’s, Shaw is now a thriving community attracting foodies, happy hour patrons and followers of the underground art scene. In 2015, local artists with roots in the Shaw neighborhood, were commissioned to create their artwork on several garage doors in Blagden Alley.
This series of DC street art is known as The DC Alley Museum. Works include “Meditation” by Lisa Marie Thalhammer, “A System of Politics and Art” by Bill Warrell, “Maker of Saints Mural” by Rozeal, “Space is the Place”, by Aniekan Udofia, and “Windswept Mandala” by Cita Sadeli Chelove.
Never give up – Painted by Mr. Brainwash
Union Market 1309 5th Street NE
If you take a trip up to DC’s Union Market, it will be hard to miss the murals of inspiring words such as “Life is Beautiful”, “Follow Your Heart” and “Love is the Answer”. Mr. Brainwash, an influential artist, worked 14 hours through the night with his team to create this masterpiece in honor of Michele Obama’s program Let Girls Learn. According to the artist, “Art can change the world because it’s something that talks loud, but is very silent.”
Relax, Your Heart is stronger than what you think! – Painted by Yoko Ono
Union Market 1309 5th Street NE
Across the street from Mr. Brainwash’s street art, you will find a mural of bold black letters set against a white backdrop. This piece of work was completed by Yono Ono in 2017 as the inaugural project of Hirschhorn in the City, an initiative to promote international contemporary artists throughout the city.
Yoko Ono is a singer, song writer, peace activist and artist. Her work is driven by human rights, feminism and the pursuit of peace.
Doors of Perception – Painted by Juan Pineda
646 Rock Creek Church Road NW, Washington DC
Doors of Perception can be spotted on the Warder Street side of the Rock Creek market. The series of multicolored doors is meant to symbolize doors of opportunity. Juan Pineda is a DC-based graffiti and visual artist. His work throughout Maryland and Washington DC has earned him numerous awards including the Proclamation Award from the City of Hyattsville. Pineda was also recognized by the Washington Post for restoring the first and only remaining Latino mural in Washington DC.
Every Day I See Something New – Painted by CHELOVE
1742 Kalorama Rd NW, Washington, DC 20009
“Every day I see something new” was created by artist Cita Sadeli, also known as CHELOVE, for the children of the Marie Reed Center. The mural pays tribute to local DC culture incorporating Chuck Brown, the drummers and dancers of Malcolm X Park, Julia’s Empanadas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and many more.
CHELOVE is a DC-based art director, muralist, designer, and illustrator. Her work is an artistic reflection of her multicultural background and her experience growing up in Washington DC through the 80’s and 90’s.
11th Street & Q Street NW
And so the story goes, the owners of this Logan Circle home decided to paint their home from the current pea-green color to a nice shade of fire-engine red. They awoke the next morning to find that the paint had dried to a stomach-turning shade of “Pepto-Bismol”. With only the front and half of the alley wall painted, they looked at the building with arms crossed searching for a solution. Staring at the new creamy coral paint contrasted with the previous shade of bright green resulted in a “Eureka” moment.
They rushed to the nearby Whole Foods for a model and began the transformation of their home from Pepto-Bismol to watermelon. Their ad-hoc moment of creativity has now become a staple of DC street art and a popular tourist attraction. It was even featured on Roadside America, the online guide to offbeat tourist attractions. Now that is a lesson in how to turn lemons into lemonade!
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This list only covers a fraction of the street art you might find in our nation’s capital. Like the street art of Chicago and the murals of Miami, artistic forms of expression are popping up in Washington DC every week.
Have you had the chance to visit some of Washington DC’s popular street art? Which are your favorites?
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