Wide Open Walls mural festival is returning with a new approach for their eighth consecutive edition. After painting California’s capitol city with 200 murals, they’re further enriching Sacramento’s landscape by enlivening local schools with artworks. In 2023 alone, Wide Open Walls has painted eight schools, sometimes near entirely, inside and outside alike, depending on each building’s architecture. Their latest work at Rosa Parks Elementary concluded May 22.
I’ve seen a lot in five years covering street art. Two years of Wynwood during Basel, mural fests from Mexico to Memphis, and that’s just what I’ve covered in person. I’ve seen my ex boyfriend’s stickers on the walk to Urban Nation in Berlin, and my sometimes co-collaborator Czr Prz’s wheatpastes in Aberdeen during Nuart. Back in America I’ve formed a bi-coastal opinion of the country’s best programs — Beyond Walls in Lynn, MA on the east coast, which I saw in winter 2021, and Wide Open Walls on the west, which I’d never seen, but had covered a few times.
In 2023 alone, Wide Open Walls has painted eight schools, sometimes near entirely, inside and outside alike, depending on each building’s architecture.
My criteria are quality, variety, and rare gems. Beyond Walls has Helen Bur’s first-ever mural in America. Wide Open Walls has given rise to a distinctly strong scene of the city’s own — the full roster for Rosa Parks spanned about a baker’s dozen artists, headlined by Herakut, including artists from Richmond and Dallas — but notably also the Bay Area and Sacramento, in droves. Maybe that’s to be expected. It’s home to the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi.
The Crocker — I had been there seven years prior, in a past life one year before I resolved to write about street art with a pen name and instantaneously met UP Editor-in-Chief T.K. Mills, when I used to cover agriculture. If you don’t think of the country when you think about California, then Hollywood’s really got a hold on you. That was the first trip where I tried not drinking. Fumbling for my old interests, I went to an art museum. I learned about critical San Francisco-based new contemporary art magazine Hi Fructose at a special exhibition that day.
That time didn’t work, by the way, and I did get to go wild in Sactown. But eventually it did work.
So as Wide Open Walls got underway on their eighth school mini-fest so far this year — each concludes with a one-day community party — I returned to Sacramento after a 14 hour train ride from L.A. to see the city for the first time ever through the eyes of this self, for whom it is still working, who could see art on the street and know who made it. The hotel we stayed in had How & Nosm on it, complimenting a sweeping meadow scene by Anthony Padilla. Seven years ago, I waitressed to pay the bills. Now my business travels with me. I banged out a whole work day by 3pm. It struck me that Sacramento might have a kava bar — even Greensboro, NC does, I learned while covering the mural mobilizations there in 2021. Sacramento does, in fact.
Dreamsicle tea drink in tow, I took a car from the historic R street arts district, where the kava bar was, to Rosa Parks Elementary — in Meadowview, southeast of downtown, new territory for me, since I’d always stayed by the hotel until a PR person took me to whatever site I was touring. Wide Open Wall’s new model is concentrated on animating underserved areas first.
It was quiet, quaint, pretty — though so much of Sacramento is, one of America’s many fertile crescents, crowned by blazing blue skies and palm trees in the distance. The whole front facade already had a doodle grid by L.A.-based Shane Grammer, even the edge of the awning’s oscillating curves. I ventured inwards and found three artists painting panels of the open-air school, with enclosed courtyards by way of hallways due to the balmy weather. Tiranjini Pillai was setting down a robin’s egg abstract background, Kris Rosa was hard at work on a whale, and Leon Willis was filling the first stencils for the next installment in his Love wall series.
Infiltrating further, I stood mesmerized by Jose Di Gregorio’s multicolored celestial space dust. A custodian from the school interrupted my reverie. “Would you like to see inside?” he asked. “Am I allowed?” I answered., but he pulled out his keys and guided me to the main gym, completely alive now with two portraits by another local artist — Adrian Malko, who was also dousing the adjacent auxiliary gym with color. He told me he planned to paint the locker rooms too.
There, I met Heather Haight — whose cold call to Wide Open Walls founder David Sobon this January catalyzed the festival’s whole new model. She noticed particularly that after the pandemic, her son and his classmates at Tahoe Elementary needed a boost to get back into their studies. She asked Sobon if he could facilitate a mural at their school. Born and raised in Sacramento, Sobon grew up steeped in the arts too. He’s an auctioneer who’s served on the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and built extensive experience with fundraising. Sobon replied, suggesting they do 30 murals instead, then offered to orchestrate the finances.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Sobon grew up steeped in the arts too. He’s an auctioneer who’s served on the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and built extensive experience with fundraising.
After Tahoe, Wide Open Walls struck a deal with Sacramento City Unified School District, one of the county’s 13 school districts, serving 40,000 students across 73 campuses. At present Wide Open Walls plans to paint every single one of them between now and the next ten years — then they want to work with the remaining districts. I visited Hiram Johnson High School, near Colonial Manner, more west than south of Downtown, in a busier area. Only a fluorescent scuba scene by Tim Lindsay & Wel Sed was visible to the street. Most murals at that school are inside.
Back at Rosa Parks, as the custodian and I left the gym we found another mural in progress around the back of the building. “I work here and even I haven’t seen all this stuff,” he exclaimed. We parted ways and I finished my own loop around the building, meeting Nico Cathcart on her first day at the wall — meticulously gridded out with the first forms taking shape, the face of a Shoshone woman she knew from back home, belonging to the very tribe the land of Rosa Parks Elementary belonged to. She’d soon don a floral crown, Cathcart told me.
Close by, my other co-collaborator JM Rizzi would complete an energetic black and white mural of abstract expressionism to punctuate the colorful collection to take shape, translating an instantaneous artform through the long, physical task of mural painting. While I was there though, I fell smitten with the sweet Quetzalcoatl Cova was starting. I spoke with Jorge Rodriguez, who was collaborating with AJ Kute on a rusty red single-frame narrative of Mexican singer-songwriter Chalino Sànchez, which the artists selected from a group of names assembled by students saying who they’d like to see on that end of the school’s back wall.
Sobon himself rolled up in a big black pickup truck while we were talking, our first time meeting in person after a number of interviews. An artist named Karen Chen also in on the project came up with two assistants in tow. As we all chatted, she set one of them, Emilio Mils, up to ask Sobon for a wall, if there was an extra spot at Rosa Parks. Sobon obliged, to Emilio’s apparent surprise. A grin spread across his face — a new career taking root, much like how Chen’s own had. She’s well-practiced by now, it was obvious, as she translated an illustration from one of the adult coloring books she makes for work onto a wall by a water fountain. In the stairwell next to her, Detroit-based Zach Curtis was spraying a portrait of Nipsey Hussel. In between bouts of work, he gave Chen lessons on using aerosol, public art facilitating connections amongst artists.
Sobon and I headed for a fest-wide dinner at Roc&Sol, a converted Waffle House doused in street art — but not before a detour to help finish installing Martha Cooper’s exhibition at Twisted Track Gallery, also owned by the diner, back over by the tea house on R street. Titled “Evolution of a Revolution,” it featured plenty of photos from graffiti’s earliest heydays onwards, alongside painted panels — pieces, burners, even her own visage — and a community wall. She gave an artist talk there with Karin du Maire for Street Art NYC at the height of the activity.
“Uplifting schools benefits not just the kids who attend the school but the entire neighborhood,” Sobon told me.
“Uplifting schools benefits not just the kids who attend the school but the entire neighborhood,” Sobon told me. “There is nothing like seeing the changes in the students, from the first time they see the murals, so excited, running from one to the other talking about their favorites, to the discussions they have with their friends and teachers, to sparking their imagination to want to become an artist, changes in their mental health, and even for their grades, knowing the fact that somebody cares enough about them that they would bring these murals to their school.”
Covering fine art informs my view of street art, and vice versa. I had to get back to NYC to see Frieze art fair that Friday, but my last dinner in Sacramento on Wednesday night left me with one final sweet taste of the city and its scene. Over a sumptuous spread at Federalist Pizza, Sobon thanked the growing crowd of art family — board members like local artist Raphael Delgado and Mike Stalter, of photography and Juxtapoz fame — alongside photojournalists like Brian Wulf from Miami, legions of artists from all over, and the volunteers. One artist I met that night, from Sacramento, told me he’d never been to that part of the city before.
In five years covering street art, I hope I’m savvy enough to identify the glow of an authentic community when I feel it.
In five years covering street art, I hope I’m savvy enough to identify the glow of an authentic community when I feel it. A lot has changed across the landscape within that time, and it will always keep changing. Such is the nature of life, and art. Wide Open Walls demonstrates the ethos of an organization likely to survive the ripples and eddies because it remains flexible, and committed to the kind of critical core community that made aerosol a sensation in the first place.