The murals in Wynwood turned the neighborhood away from its worn-down garment district roots to the booming art district that it is today. (©Benjamin Rusnak)
Coolness has a lifecycle.
“What makes money isn't what's cool and what's cool isn't what makes you money. Basically, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't,” said Ryan “the Wheelbarrow” Ferrell, artist and resident Wynwood tour guru. “But Wynwood is cool at walking that line.”
Trendy neighborhoods have a predictable lifecycle. First, it's the place no one wants to be, allowing artists to move in and claim it. Before long, if what they're creating is good, someone notices and capitalism sweeps in and does its thing. Soon, the neighborhood becomes a victim of its own success and property values sky rocket, chasing away the very artists that made the area cool in the first place.
Before that happens, there's a moment where everything sort of plateaus. And that’s (hopefully) where Wynwood is now and where it will manage to stay. And it just might, thanks to the nature of the art that made it famous.
Once, a semi-abandoned garment district of derelict warehouses, in 2009 Tony Goldman's development company opened the Wynwood Walls to local street artists, along with 30 or so other buildings surrounding it.
“He [Goldman] was the one that built the trust,” said Ferrell. Referring to the trust built over the years, between artists and Goldman Properties.
Ferrell isn't a traditional street artist, though he's done a few murals. He's a screen-printing artist specializing in what he calls “live fashion vandalism.” Together with friend and fellow artist Pedro AMOS, he runs Miami's Best Graffiti Guide, the official walking tour for the Wynwood Walls.
Ferrell moved to the area in 2003, six years before Goldman would appear on the scene.
“Before the Walls, from the general public's stand point this place was dangerous. Once they opened the Wynwood Walls, you saw the whole mentality shift. He was that influential force that gave it that sexiness like he did with South Beach in the 80s.”
Rick “Abstrk” Mastrapa is a local street artist from way back. Born and raised in Miami, the Cuban-American was once told by a teacher at the Design and Architecture High School in Miami, that graffiti is not art and that it never will be. Now, he makes a living filling public spaces with his designs.
For him, the continuing success of Wynwood is ineffably tied to the acceptance of graffiti and street art as legitimate art. When asked if Wynwood is still a cool place for artists to be and work, or if it's just for tourists, he says it’s about balance.
“It could be both. You still have artists from around the world that are going to come [here] but of course, it’s not as raw and as exciting as it was at the beginning when it was nothing but artists. Back then artists like Quake, in the early 90s, they were doing giant murals trackside not because it was 'Wynwood' but because it was an area with a lot of crime and no one cared what was going on there."
"Before we were complaining that nobody accepted this as art and now we’re complaining because they are," said Mastrapa.
Born and raised in Miami, Tatiana "Tati" Suarez doesn't come from the street art world, but after her graffiti writer friends kept encouraging her to get out there, she did her first mural inside the old RC Cola Plant in 2009.
“I remember how different it was. The wall I was painting was actually bare. It was virgin concrete and you don’t find that there anymore,” said Suarez. “I was invited to paint inside the Wynwood Walls last year, which was a really big deal and an honor. When I started, I never thought I’d see myself in those walls and now those artists are my peers and friends.”
The success of Wynwood is a double-edged sword, she says. It's brought a lot of good to the neighborhood, but also the bad. She calls them culture vultures, companies that don't really understand the art but want to sponsor murals because it's trending. It becomes a battle between making a living as an artist and preserving what makes it art in the first place.
“But I think it still has that artsy vibe and it’s kind of grimy,” said Suarez. “It hasn’t completely become a tourist trap but I know certain nights to avoid it. There are still beautiful murals, you just have to find them.”
“To me the most beautiful thing is that it coexists,” said Ferrell. “You can have that illegal [art] right next to the sponsored and most of it is horrible and then you get this one guy (Eduardo Kobra) from Brazil that’s amazing and you see his art popping out.
Wynwood is one of those spots where, if you want to make a living off of it, this is a neighborhood where you can. But it's all in the approach of how you go about doing it. If you do the Mountain Dew mural with the logo, expect every vandal to go after it.”
Street art is, by its very nature, ephemeral. You leave your art on public walls that don't belong to you, subject to the elements, to rival artists and to bar hoppers with markers. You leave your mark on the neighborhood and then the neighborhood leaves its mark on you.
Nothing stays the same for long.