(N.B.: If you’re looking for photos of the finished murals, along with their locations and artist info, scroll down to the end of this post)
If you’re a mural hunter, and there’s a mural festival in your town, you put it on the calendar and clear the decks.
I found out about Sea Walls Santa Cruz back last spring, when the PangeaSeed Foundation and artist Taylor Reinhold approached the Santa Cruz City Arts Commission seeking support for it. As one of the volunteers on that seven-member commission, my job is to review proposals like this one and contribute to the funding discussion.
I’d actually heard about the Sea Walls program prior to this meeting, since PangeaSeed, a Hilo, Hawaii-based non-profit, had run 17 previous “Artists for Oceans” festivals resulting in over 400 murals in a variety of locations around the world. Their slick videos featuring drone footage of art-in-progress had caught my eye and called my attention to their mission of raising awareness about threats to marine ecosystems—particularly those around climate change and sea level rise. All of PangeaSeed’s festivals are aimed at inspiring engagement with ocean advocacy through what they call “artivism:” activism through art.
PangeaSeed partnered with a well-known Santa Cruz artist, Taylor Reinhold, and his collective, the Made Fresh Crew, to produce the Santa Cruz edition of the festival. PangeaSeed does both high-level and grass roots fundraising, maintains contacts with prominent artists, and oversees these events. However, they need local artists on the ground to do the city-specific operations work. Taylor and the Made Fresh Crew headed up the myriad Santa Cruz-based jobs—tasks like identifying mural sites, getting landowners’ permissions to paint them, finding a donor for the boom lifts, recruiting volunteers, securing donations for artists’ food and hotel rooms, and prepping the walls.
I got excited as that last part started in early September. When the Arts Commission agreed to contribute funds to this project, we didn’t know where the murals were going to be located. So, as soon as the preliminary map showed up in my inbox, I hopped on my bike and started visiting sites.
Some of them I caught mid-prep process; others had already been transformed into blank canvasses by the time I got there. The crew’s wall preparation took over two weeks of hard work. It enabled the visiting artists to just show up, start working, and, in some cases, crank out their murals in just a few long days.
The artists came from as far as Hilo, Hawaii and as close as down the block, in the case of one local muralist, Caia Koopman. Her giant sea goddess graces the corner of Soquel and Caledonia, just down the street from where she lives.
Other Santa Cruz artists included the Made Fresh Crew themselves, Abi Mustapha, and Jimbo Phillips, the son of Jim Phillips, a well-known graphic artist whose work has been all over the skateboard industry for years.
I was especially excited that an Oakland artist named Ricky Watts was selected for a wall. I’d been following his work on Instagram for six years, so meeting him and watching his project unfold was especially rewarding. Ricky got down off of his lift one day and took the time to explain to me how he superimposed his wall markings onto his “sketch” (more like a very well-developed Photoshop file) in order to help himself keep track of his place on his giant canvas. When he’s painting, he works from the top of the wall to the bottom and entirely with spray cans.
Other artists used brushes and rollers along with spray cans, and some used tape in order to make straight lines. A few artists worked independently throughout the process, while others had assistants filling in color blocks or adding specific details. One even worked without a sketch at all. And they were definitely working. The afternoon I volunteered to drive around and deliver snacks and drinks, the extra sandwiches I had with me were scarfed up. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” I heard more than once.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this festival was watching the rest of my home city get excited about public art. In the course of making my daily rounds, I constantly bumped into people with maps in their hands, people gaping up at the walls, people taking selfies in front of in-progress murals, and people on bikes braking suddenly to see what was going on.
Unlike most other forms of visual arts, murals unfold in the public eye. There’s no way to shield spectators from the creative process. While that might be annoying for the artists (many wore earbuds, but they also seemed quite used to being watched), it’s great for the rest of us who have always wondered how these giant works come together.
I learned all sorts of things—like that painting on corrugated metal is hard, so dealing with a garage door in the middle of a wall poses and extra challenge. And that being a smooth boom lift operator is critical. And that boom lifts can’t be operated on slanted surfaces. On the last day of painting, David Rice had a tiny (relative to the size of his half-a-block-long shark mural) rectangle of wall left to paint on his very vibrant and very public bus depot mural. Since the ground underneath the spot serves as the bus exit ramp, he couldn’t use the boom lift there and had to wait for delivery of a ladder to finish.
Most of all, I learned how much effort goes into making an event like this happen. Sea Walls Santa Cruz was a two-year undertaking that resulted in a seven-day flurry of painting. And that flurry has changed the face of this city for residents and visitors alike, by adding nineteen—yes, NINETEEN—new public artworks to the landscape.
Hopefully it will also cause people to think. In Jet Martinez’s gorgeous screenprint-like plastic pollution mural, there’s a spoon, a mask, and a six-pack holder floating amidst the sea lions and kelp. “My mom’s gonna hate this,” he told me. “She likes the pretty stuff.” But the plastic in our oceans is real, and we all need to be more aware of the damage it causes and the ways in which our actions contribute to that damage. I said to Jet that, in an ideal future, he could be hired to come back and get rid of those details because plastic pollution would no longer be a problem. “Yeah, it could be a historic mural then,” he said. “That would be awesome.”
Clearly, that’s not the case yet. I’m hoping this project helps us get a little closer.
Below are photos of all of the finished murals and their locations, along with the artists’ names and Instagram handles. If you like one, look up the artist and check out their other work! And, when the final Sea Walls Santa Cruz video is released, I’ll link it here.
DOWNTOWN SANTA CRUZ
There are four murals around and behind the Front Street Garage, 601 Front Street:
There are two murals at the city bus depot, 435 Front Street:
And then there are three other downtown area murals:
And this one is at the Santa Cruz Wharf:
Caia Koopman @caiakoopman, 730 Soquel Avenue
Gatz PTV @gatsptv, 3651 Soquel Drive