Spirit of Main Street
By Shaun LaRose
(above) Photo Courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga
Beginnings: Main Street Experiments
When Chattanooga Christian School art teacher and local muralist Shaun LaRose moved to Chattanooga in 2004, the city was still in the process of reinventing itself and renewing the downtown area.
“Between Lookout Mountain and the river, Chattanooga was somewhat desolate,” says LaRose. “Part of it had a post-apocalyptic flare with boarded up windows and crumbling buildings from a bygone era.”
At that point, there were no sizeable murals to be found in the city. Businesses largely viewed murals with skepticism—sign pollution that would brand their area for the worse rather than provide economic stimulus. But when local coffeehouse owner Ian Goodman allowed LaRose to paint his first Chattanooga mural in Greyfriar’s, it broke the ice, and as the city developed, murals came right alongside.
LaRose received his first mural grant through Allied Arts (the pre-cursor to ArtsBuild), and the Lyndhurst Foundation in 2007, selecting a building on the still-developing West Main Street as his target. Mimicking the tactics of famed muralist Meg Saligman, who years later would herself play a significant role in Chattanooga’s public art story, he interviewed local businesses and residents, forging relationships with the community. He also hired local storyteller Jim Pfitzer and designer Andrew Stewart to help create a collaborative design that would express the history of Main Street in its golden era. The ultimate result was the remarkable mural entitled “The Spirit of Main Street.”
“That was my first attempt working on a mural for the purpose of urban renewal and creating social capital,” says LaRose. “We can’t quantify to what degree it was a success, but I hope in some small measure it was an asset to the larger endeavor.”
In June 2011, the Discoteca Demolition Project became another major turning point for the city’s muralism scene. The brainchild of LaRose and local designer D.J. Trischler, a vacated Discoteca bar on East Main, scheduled for demolition, was turned into a rotating canvas of street art for several months, promoting murals as an art form and giving local artists a platform for their work.
“What ensued was a whirlwind of competing street artists and eventually all out chaos,” LaRose admits. “However, it was a brilliant social experiment and as a result a number of artists were launched into the spotlight in Chattanooga.”
In particular, local artist Kevin Bate’s portrait of Samuel L. Jackson, his very first mural, garnered a great deal of attention and led to a number of commissions around the city.
“I think [the Discoteca Project] went a long way towards the city’s acceptance of street art and muralism as something other than graffiti,” says Bate. “But I also see it as a point when a lot of artists realized that they could paint large-scale, that there was no magic to it.”
Also present was a man named Eric Finley, a muralist who would ultimately become an instrumental figure in rebranding street art in Chattanooga.
“It was a brilliant social experiment and as a result a number of artists were launched into the spotlight in Chattanooga.”
– Shaun LaRose