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Richmond artist reflects on ten years of murals in the city

This fall the RVA Street Art Festival will return for the first time since the start of the pandemic. For its ten-year anniversary the festival will come back to the place it began, an old brick wall overlooking the canal in downtown Richmond.

We’ve got this look at ten years of mural history through one artist’s eyes.

Ten years ago artist Mickael Broth painted one of his first ever murals right here – on Richmond’s canal walk.

“Painting large, it just always appealed to me… knowing that people will see it really appealed to me when I was younger in particular,” Broth says.

When he was younger, trying to find his voice and place as a teenager, Broth had turned to graffiti. That ended poorly for him when he moved to Richmond in 2001.

Police caught him and he spent ten months in jail. For years after he focused on legal artwork, on paper at home.

But in 2012 he noticed Ed Trask, considered by many the godfather of Richmond’s mural scene, out working. Broth asked if he could help out. Around the same time a city councilor, Jon Baliles, was toying with the idea of a street art festival in Richmond after getting inspired in Europe.

“He's one of those people also who operate somewhere like, ‘Well, why not here?’” Broth says. “Like, why shouldn't that succeed here?”

So Baliles and Trask linked up and planned the first RVA Street Art Festival. At this very spot on the canal walk.Today it’s a well-known outdoor gallery of murals – restaurants across the way. People walking and running past. But at the time the space was very different. Broth was a bit disbelieving.

“I come from, like, a criminal background, essentially breaking into abandoned buildings to paint and stuff. And like, I was like, this area is sketchy. Like nobody’s going to come down here,” Broth recalls with a laugh.

But they did. The vision worked.

And Broth, known today as the Night Owl, landed a spot. It was his first large scale piece in years, and he was painting alongside internationally-renowned graffiti artists.

“It really was awesome seeing some of the people who I really do look up to, seeing the way that they created,” says Broth. “I know I got the experience that John had been hoping for… seeing an artist create and just being like – Oh, that is genius.”

It was also intimidating. Broth was uncomfortable and ultimately unhappy with what he painted. But now, with a decade of experience under his belt, he’s been given the chance to paint over it. Together we stand in front of his latest work, a figure he calls the Ashen Lady of the James.

It’s modeled after an earlier mural of his that was recently painted over by developers.

“Lots of people really did connect with that piece and I wanted to bring it back in some way,” says Broth. “Partly as a crowd pleaser and partly something that I felt was a good metaphor is like, you know, this resurrection.”

Resurrection and growth. Today there are more than 300 murals throughout the city.

Broth’s re-painting at this space sets the stage for what will happen to all these ten-year old paintings later this fall – when the Street Art Festival returns to the place it all started. That gives folks this Spring and Summer to see them before they disappear.

Broth says street art was always meant to be temporary.

“Accepting that, you know, time moves on and that certain things change, whether you want them to or not,” Broth says. “I think that's really a valuable thing that we all have to engage with and live with.”

One thing that’s changed is the abundance of local artists. Ten years ago festival organizers brought in big names to participate. This year they’re only accepting applications from folks who have some kind of connection to the city.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.