While driving to the Gateway Arch, you might have noticed the colorful, wildly creative graffiti art covering the flood wall nearby, just south of the Arch grounds.
For years, I’ve been interested in these spray-painted masterpieces, venturing further and further down the wall and into the vast industrial wasteland that is the St. Louis riverfront. I’m still not sure how far the paint goes. Seemingly forever. But during this year’s Paint Louis event—held September 22-24—I followed the wall at least as far as the artists were applying fresh paint.
I had become especially curious about the huge amount of these murals, all so extensive and skillfully crafted. I started looking for information and found that there’s a method to the madness, a plan that (at least somewhat) manages the adornment of the wall. Paint Louis is that plan, and also an event.
Run by a small, unpaid group of organizers, Paint Louis was created to celebrate this ideal graffiti canvas. Prior to the event, the flood wall was already known as the favorite spot for local graffiti artists. No one has ever particularly cared if people painted on this wall, nor cared what they painted. And thus the city officially signed off on having dozens, eventually hundreds of people spray their biggest, boldest graffiti creations onto the wall.
Once a year, artists travel from around the country to for a weekend of painting, each assigned a section of wall. In addition to the graffiti, Paint Louis is designed to showcase the other three elements of hip-hop culture, defined as : rapping, DJ’ing, and b-boy dancing. Paint Louis began way back in 1994 but was shut down from 2001 to 2013, after a group of visiting artists went rogue and “bombed” the city with illegal graffiti.
While murals have become the main attraction, many of the artists focus on the art of the graffiti ‘tag’, i.e. an intricate, stylized name or signature. This is tagging at its finest—eye-popping tags with lots of depth and perspective.
As for the murals, you just never know what you’ll see. This year’s paintings include a giant Kong-like gorilla, the Pink Panther, and Donald Trump being abandoned by his own hair (as it exclaims “I’m tired of yo’ shit!”). Some artists also referenced the police reform protests taking place as they painted. Politicially themed graffiti includes an “STL Strong” design and a “Fuq Stockley” tag.
Throughout the year, the Paint Louis artworks pick up various tags, scribbles, and penis-related drawings. Weather takes its toll as well. So to view the art while it’s fresh and unadulterated, timing is key. Head down to the most desolate part of St Louis, and check out some of its best public art. | Karl Beck
Paint Louis artworks can be seen at the corner of Wharf St. & Chouteau, and continuing South along Wharf St.
Photos by Karl Beck.