Urban Reno Art: Adding Beauty, Deterring Graffiti

Aug 21, 2017

A brightly colored wall of murals lines the exterior of Nevada Fine Arts in Midtown Reno. Muralist Joe C. Rock stands in front of the portion of wall he colored.
Credit Holly Hutchings

Murals are popping up all over Midtown Reno and trickling into the downtown corridor as well. The city counts close to 60, making it easy to spot one. Our reporter Holly Hutchings talked with a tagger-turned-muralist who is beautifying the city one painting at a time. 

The first mural painted by artist Joe C. Rock, a portrait of a child on the garage door in an alley in Midtown.
Credit Holly Hutchings

The murals are everywhere, covering fences, alleyways and entire sides of businesses. These huge pieces of free art are helping define a neighborhood that wasn’t always so appealing.

“This place was definitely rundown. Like before, like mid 2000's, it was definitely decrepit. You know, barbed wire fences, homeless people sleeping, needles on the ground, sleeping bags in corners, trash," says muralist Joe C. Rock, an artist who is helping in this area’s transformation.

Now a walkable and safe hub for art & culture, the area hosts monthly art walks that dozens of people attend.

A mural highlighting the history of their business covers the wall of Peerless Cleaners in Reno.
Credit Holly Hutchings

They stroll through the neighborhood enjoying food, music, and-of course-art. A steady stream of participants stop to watch Rock as he paints his newest piece. On the back of a business called Statewide Lighting, Rock sprays the letters of the iconic Reno sign suspended over a huge light bulb.

Local artist Joe C. Rock paints a mural on the back of a business during a recent art walk.
Credit Holly Hutchings

He has a unique perspective as a former graffiti artist as well as a respected muralist. And more than just painting on a wall, Joe C. is trying to make an impact with the 20-plus murals he’s created.

Rock stands next to a mural of Abraham Lincoln he created.
Credit Holly Hutchings

“The goal, I feel, is to liven up the city," he says, "where it's a blank white wall or orange wall or something that no one is paying attention to--like, no one even looks at it--where now, even if you don't care, you still see it out of the corner or your eye, or it draws your attention to it.”

A half mile north on Virginia Street, one colorful wall will definitely grab your attention. 

Paul Doege, owner of Recycled Records stands next to a mural on the back of his shop in Midtown.
Credit Holly Hutchings

"What we’ve got here going from left to right, you’ve got from around the corner starts a bright pink piano, and it’s got musical notes all around it," says Paul Doege, the owner of Recycled Records in Midtown. "And then the piano stops but the keyboard keeps going.”

The wall in the alley behind Doege's shop hosts a vibrant scene depicting the theme of his store.

He says having art on the back of his business has stopped graffiti on that wall, and he thinks the mural trend can continue to curb the nuisance.

“In general, there is an artist code of honor that says, for the mos,t part you leave somebody else's art alone. If you have a bare wall, that's your canvas. Yeah, it’s gonna be a much better thing if we can direct people to do that kind of stuff, to do the murals opposed to tagging," Doege says. "Tagging is something we just try to avoid. It does really help. It makes the place more beautiful, and it decreases tagging. There's no bad side to that.” 

A Reno alley lined in mural work.
Credit Holly Hutchings

Recycled Records’ mural is a product of Spray Positive. This anti-graffiti task force is a collaboration between The Children’s Cabinet, the City of Reno and the Reno Police Department. The department spends an average of $250,000 a year on the problem. Spray Positive takes kids who may have started tagging and helps channel their creativity.

“For Spray Positive, we really look for kids who have a huge interest in art. Some of them like to do their artwork on buildings that they don’t own or are not allowed to. We take those kids and we try to turn their artistic abilities into something positive for the community," says Jessica Ernster, Program Director at The Children’s Cabinet.

Ernster and her team identify businesses that have been targets for taggers. They then develop a mural design with the business. Recycled Records is one of their satisfied customers. Ernster says this purposeful art not only stops graffiti from returning to the muraled wall, but keeps these kids engaged.

“We have one kid that was in our program and now he’s employed with The Children’s Cabinet," she says. "He actually did a mural, a representation of himself, how he felt when he was on probation. He’s a dad now, he’s graduated, he has an Associates, he works for us. Just to watch him grow has been amazing.”

Ernster says having murals sets Reno apart and that the kids who make them gain a sense of ownership and pride in their community. She says the benefits of murals can go well beyond keeping things clean, as the kids in Spray Positive now have a new hope in what their future can look like. 

Holly Hutchings is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

This story has been edited to include the City of Reno as a partner in Spray Positive.