A Statewide Tour of Florida’s Mural Art
By Janet K. Keeler
In Florida, the saying ought not to be if these walls could talk but rather how much they are saying.
All over the state, from small towns to big cities, blank walls are doubling as artists’ canvases, sprouting scenes of Florida’s agricultural and pioneer heritage, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter surrounded by pink flamingos and graphic spirals a viewer can disappear into.
The art of the mural is hot in the Sunshine State, echoing a nationwide trend celebrating public art. In just a few years, the medium has grown so much that a new tourism industry has sprung up, too.
Guided walking and biking tours explain the meaning and the movement, inspiring travelers to go out of their way to take in the scenes. Perhaps the most 21st century byproduct of all these murals? They have become the backdrops for engagement photos and Saturday night selfies posted prolifically on social media. (Search #murals on Instagram.)
Murals are powerful ways to tell the story of a community or to simply explore an artist’s vision. How else to explain a Technicolor Yoda toting a “Stop Wars” sign in Miami’s Wynwood Walls mural district? Best of all, murals are accessible to everyone. No museum ticket needed.
In Florida, from south to north, there are plenty of places to “see” what the walls are saying. Here’s a roundup of what to see on the Florida Mural Trail:
Wynwood Walls, Miami. This once sketchy stretch of industrial Miami has blossomed into its most creative and distinctive arts district, drawing visitors from around the globe. Some of the world’s most famous mural artists have brought the area to life and in the process created a new tourist destination, complete with restaurants and watering holes. Walking tours of the dozens of murals give visitors the scoop on the best of what’s there.
Whaling Walls, Florida Keys. Need yet another reason to visit the American tropics? There are three Wyland murals in the Keys, located in Key Largo, Marathon and Key West. Wyland is an environmental artist who has painted 100 large-scale marine murals in 17 counties. Much of his work was inspired by Florida’s coral reefs. On your way to Key West, stop at mile marker 99.2, then 50 and then Key West’s Historic Seaport to see them all. There is a fourth Wyland Whaling Wall in Destin.
CANVAS, Lake Worth. When does public art become a public party? When an annual two-week festival brings artists to town to paint the walls red, blue and whatever. For the CANVAS festival, muralists do their work on many unexpected places including parking garage walls and under bridges. They leave behind work that can be viewed year-round. A walking map including nearby restaurants is helpful. LULA, Lake Worth's arts initiative, has also commissioned murals from local students and artists throughout downtown.
Hobe Sound Murals. Seventeen large-scale murals painted by a collaborative group of 40 artists celebrate Florida scenes, including an iconic Poinciana tree in full red blooms. This “paint-the-town” initiative began in 2009 and today self-guided and guided tours can be taken on wheels (bike or car) and on foot. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon in Hobe Sound on the Atlantic. The Chamber of Commerce provides free maps and information on two-hour guided tours.
Stuart Main Street Murals. More than a dozen murals illustrate this city’s rich history and community spirit, including a flowery tribute to its claim as the Chrysanthemum Capital of the World. While you’re exploring this charming town, make sure to save time to visit the Stuart Heritage Museum and kick back on its wide, sandy beach, fringed with sea grapes.
Pineapple Grove Arts District, Delray Beach. This vibrant arts district is alive with, well, pineapples. They dance across the wall at the Love Shack building, which conjures an image itself. Grab lunch, admire the artist-painted bike racks and tour the many galleries and studios off Atlantic Avenue, then check out the walls.
Downtown Hollywood Mural Project. You can easily while away a day touring the city’s 20 murals depicting everything from robots to a wide-eyed cartoon mermaid. A black-and-white Audrey Hepburn amid a sea of multi-colored hearts beckons. Renowned pop artist Kenny Sharf spray-painted a cartoon panorama on the side of an optometry office. Visitors can go on free, guided walking tours every third Saturday of the month. A Facebook page will keep you updated on the latest events and projects.
Vero Beach, 2.0. The city that used to be renowned for spring training baseball has remade itself since the Los Angeles Dodgers moved the operation to Arizona in 2008. What it lost from baseball, the city has made up in public art. Some 15 murals dot the downtown including those that illustrate Florida life with a modern flair, including a heart being pulled every which way. Make sure you take some time to stop at Riverside Park and take a portrait in front of the way-bigger-than-life birds.
History in Fort Pierce. The murals of Fort Pierce reflect a time gone-by in one of Florida’s oldest cities, incorporated in 1901. Chief Osceola, cowboys and cattle, author Nora Zeale Hurston, the town’s namesake Benjamin K. Pierce along with the many industries that developed the Sunshine State are represented on an inside mural at the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority. More indoor murals at the Arcade Building show life around the time the city was born. Apparently, everyone wore hats.
Public Art, Pompano Beach. Murals have a long history of promoting social justice and commenting on the plights of struggling people. In Pompano Beach, that message mingles on the walls with more bucolic scenes of lighthouses and Florida fish. The world peace mural on Flagler Avenue repeats that plea over and over. (There are similar ones in Tallahassee, Miami, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale as part a nationwide tour.) There are just four murals in Pompano Beach but they are worthy of a drive-by for travelers in the area.
Mural Town, Punta Gorda. When a city gives itself this nickname, you know it means business. Nearly 30 murals in the downtown historic district show the history of the town, which includes 2004’s Hurricane Charley, whose punishing winds transformed the city. Some of the historic murals were destroyed and have since been re-created. An interactive map leads visitors past murals of “school marms” crossing the bay, the first firehouse, conquistadors and a Peace River panorama, among others.
The Good life in Venice. Life on Florida’s west south coast appears nothing less than perfect when seen through the eyes of the artists who have painted murals in Venice. And who are we to argue with scenes of the state’s natural wonders and a glimpse into its past? Lots of us have romantic and nostalgic thoughts about riding the train depicted in Venice Remembered on the side of the Venice Gondolier Sun newspaper building. If you’re heading south from Venice on Interstate 75, make a detour into Fort Myers for a couple of historic murals downtown.
Shine, St. Petersburg. In just a few short years, the Sunshine City has transformed into mural town. Dozens of murals grace the sides, front and backs of building in the downtown core and nearby environs. The proliferation of murals is fueled by the annual fall Shine Festival, which brings international muralists to town to work alongside local artists. There are regular walking tours and a bike tour called Tour de Shine plus free maps for self-guided tours. Make sure to walk the alleys. St. Petersburg also has the Interstate-275 Underpass Murals from The Deuces Live.
Tampa on the Wall. In Tampa, even the downtown Poe parking garage gets the artistic treatment, splashed as it is in colorful geometric designs. The city has commissioned a number of murals, including a billboard-size vintage postcard welcoming visitors to town and others that represent the people that built one of Florida’s largest cities, both physically and culturally.
Murals for Mutts, Dunedin. This charming town is home to a tail-wagging collection of murals hosted by Murals for Mutts, a 501c3 non-profit organization that raises money for animal welfare by painting pet portraits and pet murals in communities around the country. Among the offerings, you’ll find one welcoming visitors to “Dogedin,” featuring a happy collection of canines, cats, and even a flying pig.
Murals of the North Suncoast. Six murals in downtown Brooksville narrate 100 years of the city’s history, complete with a 1950s drug store scene that will make visitors want to plunk their last nickel into the juke box and rock to an old Elvis tune. A bald eagle swoops down on its prey in one of the murals in Hernando Beach. The Fire Department there has spearheaded efforts to beautify the town with public art. Six murals in New Port Richey are a tribute to the natural beauty of the area including one called The Henry-Grey Stilt Home. Old stilt homes still exist in many areas of coastal Florida and they evoke a more simple time when fishing was a way of life for nearly everyone.
Murals in the Middle. Smack dab in the middle of the state are the murals of Lake Wales. It isn’t exactly like looking into a fun house mirror, but the cityscapes adorning the walls of the city’s buildings create an artistic double vision. There are 21 murals and most of them have a historic theme, including the 1958 Thunderbird crashing through the wall on busy Lamson Street.
Real Old Life in St. Cloud. Many murals in Florida cities present historic scenes. St. Cloud’s Main Street murals take that a step further with the images of real people and places. Such as Hamilton Disston’s sugarcane mill. It’s picturesque for sure but it’s not a bad thing to note that Disston’s effort to bend natural Florida to his will included efforts to drain the Everglades. His 420-acre sugar plantation eventually become the town of St. Cloud. And there’s plenty more stories where that one came from on the city walls.
State Road 70 Murals. Travelers driving across Florida on S.R. 70 can get their mural on in three towns. Going from west to east stop first in Arcadia, known mostly for rodeos and antiques and now has a couple of murals just off the main road. No surprise they portray cowboys and the rodeo. Journey farther and Lake Placid is mural-central for S.R. 70. There are nearly 50 murals that grace the walls of a drug store, antique market plus historic and commercial buildings. Historic and whimsical, the murals play tricks with trompe l’oeil and even hide clues within. The Chamber of Commerce staffs a visitor’s center and has information about tours and sells tour books. Okeechobee is the last stop on the cross-state mural tour. The city on Florida’s biggest lake, Okeechobee uses its walls to tell its history. Don’t miss the mural project at the old Bank of Okeechobee, where the windows have replaced by art.
Murals of the Space Coast. From Titusville south to Melbourne, the Space Coast boasts murals in four cities. The past, present and future are presented in Titusville. Cocoa Beach, where many an astronaut lived and played, is home to tropical playland murals. The mermaids look so real you might think they’ll flop off the walls and start shopping downtown. The Eau Gallie Arts District in northern Melbourne bills itself as an outdoor museum and visitors are likely to agree. The walls are alive with mega-huge birds, sharks, hands and faces. Downtown Melbourne boasts another set of murals, including a vintage Volkswagen bus and a green pickup truck “busting” through a wall.
Historic Deland. Henry A. DeLand, the namesake of this central Florida town, exemplifies the state’s boom-and-bust history. He left his baking soda empire in New York to start anew and strike it rich again in Florida. He founded the city that now bears his name and then eventually lost a fortune on citrus. Today, there are 13 murals in Deland and many of them feel like Henry himself could have done the art direction. The Main Street DeLand Association has docent-led walking tours.
Large Art In Jacksonville. The walls are talking in Florida’s largest city with murals that illustrate a wide range of subjects painted by local and international artists. The roughly 20 murals are concentrated in the downtown core with the St. Johns River curving to the south. While many of the murals in many Florida cities focus on history, the Jacksonville murals offer more variety. A giant pile of schoolbooks nestled in a student’s arms. A sleek robot in flight. Boy and girl in monotone repose on industrial silos, amid many other scenes both realistic and graphic. A map to plan your tour is available.
City of Murals, Palatka. More than 30 murals in Palatka celebrate the history of Putnam County. Nestled between Gainesville and the Atlantic Ocean, Palatka is bordered on the east by the St. Johns River and many of the murals grace the avenue named after the river. One of the most interesting is Harlem Nights, a celebration of a jazz band began that got its start in Palatka. The Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee offers a downloadable tour map.
352 Walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative. The 20 murals of Gainesville reflect the vibe of the state’s largest public university, University of Florida. Some challenge viewers to think about social issues, other create space for contemplation and one memorializes a promising football player cut down in the prime of his life. New murals are added each year, painted by local and international artists. Plan your downtown wall walk armed with addresses and back stories about each mural.
Ocala Murals. There’s a luscious watermelon and some tomatoes sprouting on a water tank in Ocala, celebrating the area’s agriculture roots. There aren’t a lot of murals in the city but the water tank is worth a detour, as is a bucolic line of trees on the Seminole Feed Warehouse, complete with a line of Muscovy ducks marching along.
Capital Murals, Tallahassee. The capital city is home to Florida State University and also boasts some of the state’s most interesting murals. Most districts of the city, including Frenchtown, downtown and FSU, have murals depicting everything from music to ecology, big dreams to street scenes. There are self-guided walks and maps, too.
Havana Murals on Mainstreet, Havana. Just north of Tallahassee, you’ll find the village of Havana, home to five murals, including the Havana Motors Mural. The mural takes a peek back into the city's shade tobacco era, when the Ford dealership there was Havana Motors, portraying a day at the dealership with one of its mechanics enjoying a break.
Another Whaling Wall, Destin. Adding to the three Wyland Whaling Walls in the Florida Keys, is a fourth one in Destin. The murals are part of a global tribute to whales by the internationally known artist. The Destin mural graces all four walls of Mid-Bay Marina’s dry-storage building. Check it out from the Mid-Bay Bridge that spans Choctawhatchee Bay for the best view.
Public art of Pensacola. Walls, a railroad trestle, a parking garage and even parking meters become public art canvases in Pensacola. Street artists have been splashing and spraying paint on “Graffiti Bridge” in the dark since the 1930s and now it’s legal. The messages and images have become one of the most photographed backdrops in the city. Bring your selfie-stick. Sanctioned from the beginning unlike the trestle, the mural on the Jefferson Street Parking Garage shows the Pensacola Lighthouse, Spanish ships, pelicans and a Blue Angels jet, a nod to the area’s military connection and history.