Miami's Wynwood Walls, a Gritty Outdoor Museum

The vision was simple: Buy some buildings, put up a restaurant, and create an outdoor international street art museum.

High on a colorful Miami wall overlooking a grassy lot and assembled restaurant patrons below is a mural of a man in a cowboy hat and tie, hands held up at his sides in delight.

It's as if developer Tony Goldman were looking down on his Wynwood Walls creation. You can almost hear him saying: "Now that's art!"

The larger-than-life creation is the latest addition at Wynwood Walls, an enclosed collection of murals in one of Miami’s once down-trodden neighborhoods. An area that spent decades marked mostly by desolate industrial warehouses is now an art destination, thanks in large part to Goldman’s vision.

Goldman's idea was simple: Buy some buildings, put up a restaurant, and create an outdoor international street art museum. Where others saw windowless concrete, Goldman saw canvas.

After the Wynwood art scene began organically with a smattering of galleries and graffiti, he helped it along by bringing in restaurants and a closed-off art park for artists to showcase their work.

The neighborhood now boasts at least 50 galleries and dozens of murals in addition to those at Wynwood Walls.

"I imagine all of Wynwood being an outdoor museum – this just being a town center," Goldman said before his September 2012 death. "Through paint, energy and creativity you’re sending out electricity and imagery that elevates!"

So hieroglyphics, images of the Dalai Lama, the Planters Peanut, chipmunk cartoons and what look like happy blobs of bacteria find space together. They are the products of artists from the United States, Brazil, Belgium, Mexico, Japan, and other nations. Some of contributors include Os Gemeos, Kenny Scharf, Aiko, Nunca, and Shepard Fairey, best known for his iconic "Hope" image of President Obama.

It's a far cry from the time artist Santiago Rubino spent as a teenager, spraying painting graffiti on abandoned walls hoping not to get caught. Sometimes he did.

"I can't believe my life has taken a switch like that. I used to want to paint murals but I didn’t know where or how to approach it. Now they approach me," said Rubino, 33, who moved to South Florida from Argentina when he was 8. "The city accepts the street art more. They're noticing how art brings people together. It helps the city. There was talent hidden; now it's been discovered by outdoor art."

As a fitting tribute to celebrate the 2012 Art Basel festival, Rubino's mural included a tribute to Goldman.
Goldman's larger than life face – painted by Fairey -- now joins a series of 60-by-15 murals painted on the walls of six warehouses in the art park the developer created in 2009. Beside them are a set of art works painted on 176 feet of roll-up store front gates dubbed Wynwood Doors, which allowed for more "canvas" space.

The murals are on a piece of land that was once a gravel dump. Now it's a park with boulders, trees and open space.

"Street art was always a part of the vocabulary of the neighborhood," explained Joseph Furst, managing director of Goldman Properties and founding member of the Wynwood Arts District Association. "In the '50s and '60s this was a manufacturing shoe wholesaling complex. Now it's a thriving arts destination. We are a catalyst for a lot of change."

Goldman was the developer behind the urban revitalization that transformed both South Beach and Philadelphia's seedy 13th Street. After those successes, he set his eyes on Wynwood, a neighborhood north of Miami's downtown more likely to make shoes than art.
The Wynwood Walls art park began in 2008 with a restaurant, Joey's Italian Café.

The art by renowned muralists like Scarf and Fairey came a year later. Wynwood Kitchen and Bar opened in 2010.

"Tony felt that if you feed the neighborhood, the neighborhood will feed you," Furst explained. "We use food and beverage as a catalyst for growth. What we're doing is creating an art and culture destination for the southeast United States."

Open Tuesday-Saturday until 10 p.m. , the Walls are particularly popular on the second Saturday of each month, when the district holds its popular art walk.  On those nights, up to 10,000 people descend on the neighborhood.

"Wynwood is the largest open-air street art museum that has been curated," said Martha Greenlee, of Roam There, which runs tours through the district. "Anyone who goes to see it is shocked by how extensive and comprehensive the level of work being done is."

She warns against getting too attached to any one piece of work: In preparation for Art Basel, the walls get washed out annually and painted over.

"The tour changes every year," she said. "that's the nature of street art."

Orestes Diaz, who runs Wynwood Art Walk, said at least half the people who sign up for his tours are locals learning something new about their own hometown. "People don't realize that the artists are from around the country and around the world," Diaz said. 

On a typical afternoon, the walls are an urban sanctuary enjoyed by locals and camera-toting tourists. Many visitors show up to the 2550 Northwest Second Ave., location on their own.

"I really wanted to see the Miami you wouldn't normally see," said Robert Raskin, who visited from Oklahoma recently. "You go to South Beach, because that's what you think of as Miami. But there are also these other areas; it's awesome."

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