If you take a stroll through Porthole Alley in Chapel Hill, you’ll see two schoolgirls bravely leading a pack with books in hand, a talented tuba player riding in a horse-drawn carriage, a working man in a wheelchair at the heels of a pregnant woman shuffling along in slippers and even the beloved UNC mascot Rameses strutting along, at any given time.
Though there’s no constant parade through this well-trodden town gem, the walls of the alley come alive with local muralist Michael Brown’s “Parade of Humanity” mural. Painted in 1997 and restored in 2008, this mural references locally known figures, popular literature and art and even some political topics.
“I’m not one to link myself to causes; I’m more of a link to a community,” Brown said. “I don’t want to paint whale after whale, honeybee after honeybee — I want to be an artist.”
As diverse as the mural proves to be, the loaded meanings have made it a spot targeted for politically charged vandalism more than once. In late 2014, the mural was tagged with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” written in black spray paint. Brown said he does the cleaning himself when someone tags his murals and tries not to take it personally.
“If it happens, I’ll just go out on a Saturday morning at 6:30 and take care of it,” he said. “I understand how it is to feel powerless, but when they tag my stuff, I mean — do they think I’m the government?”
After he fixed the vandalism, he incorporated “Black Lives Matter” into the mural by painting it on one of the characters’ graduation robes. Less than two years later in April 2016, someone vandalized the mural again — this time, writing “Trump” in block capitals across the art.
“That took two days to fix,” Brown said. “You get to a certain level where it’s not just grabbing a marker and defacing something.”
Another mural, “Jigsaw Puzzle,” was created by Brown and his students in an alleyway in 1999 and was commissioned by the town specifically to discourage graffiti artists. Chapel Hill Public Art Administrator Jeffrey York said though murals are often used as ways to prevent illegal graffiti and vandalism in the town, it’s not always successful.
“There is a code among most taggers not to tag over someone else’s art,” York said. “However, not everyone has the same values, so we do have to remove graffiti, painted stencil art and stickers from our murals from time to time.”
But because of this code, murals are sometimes seen as solutions to vandalism problems.
In November 2016, someone painted the phrase, “Black lives don’t matter and neither does your votes” on a wall next to JC’s Kitchen in downtown Durham. Shortly afterwards, Durham couple Andy and Amanda Waldrop started a GoFundMe page to try to raise $12,000 for a mural to be painted on that wall in order to prevent further vandalism, creating a “Wall of Love” in early 2017.
Walter Tate, captain of the Community Services Division to prevent crime in Durham, said this kind of vandalism is not taken lightly.
“If caught, offenders can be charged with vandalism, damage to property and possibly additional charges if other crimes were committed,” Tate said.
In an attempt to fight back against public graffiti, North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 552 in June 2015, which made vandalism a more severe misdemeanor. Anyone convicted could be charged with a $500 fine and community service. However, it’s unclear whether or not the bill has shown a decrease in vandalism since its passing.
Not all murals are created with the intentions of deterring vandalism and graffiti, though they may unintentionally have this effect. Brown has created over 20 murals throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro — some town-commissioned and others privately funded either by local businesses or the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that previously ran a yearly mural project.
York said regardless of where the funding comes from, every mural painted in the town has to be approved by the Cultural Arts Commission.
“The art is mainly reviewed for safety, adherence to the sign ordinance and long-term maintenance rather than aesthetics,” he said.
One of the most popular town-commissioned murals is “Pencil” by Brown, in which he depicts a 140-foot pencil on the 100 block of Henderson Street with the words, “Is mightier than the sword” written across it. According to Brown, he first wanted to paint a chameleon on the wall, but the Commission rejected this idea.
One of Brown’s popular privately funded murals is “Sea Turtles,” which was painted in the PNC Bank parking lot in 1993 but restored in 2011 with the help of then-eighth-grade local artist, Sadie Rapp. According to the Chapel Hill Recorder, she created her own mural in Carrboro to raise money for the restoration.
Another prevalent local muralist, Scott Nurkin, created the famous “Welcome to Chapel Hill” town-commissioned mural before painting his own self-funded mural to commemorate Dean Smith at the intersection of Smith Level Road and U.S. 15-501.
The last mural sponsored by the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership’s yearly project was Brown’s “Paint by Numbers” in 2003, depicting muralists painting UNC football players on the exterior wall of local bar Pantana Bob’s.
Though that was the last of those projects, York said the Town of Chapel Hill has recently funded another street art project that targets a different community issue. They’ve hired local artists such as Daniel LeClaire to paint colorful crosswalks and signal boxes in Chapel Hill to increase pedestrian awareness and “the look and feel” of the streetscapes.
“Given the vehicular traffic flow on the proposed streets, the projects are expected to last two to three years before needing to be repainted,” York said. “During this time, their effectiveness for pedestrian safety will be evaluated.”
As far as this recent project and most murals in Chapel Hill go, York said the town gives a lot of creative freedom to the artists. Brown said he prides himself on the collaborative efforts of his murals, and hopes his methods discourage those tagging his art.
“I work with people and I listen to them,” he said. “I’m a farm-to-table artist — it’s farm-to-table art.”