Exploring Tampa Urban Art Scene With Illsol

The City of Tampa has commissioned many murals over the past few years. Typically for any city-curated project, most of them depict the history of the community. Private commissions and “neighborhood” murals, on the other hand, are more diverse and creative as artists have artistic freedom and follow their “true” style. We consider the urban art scene to be a combination of both privately and government-funded projects.

The process of getting murals is not complex and well-explained on the internet page developed by the City of Tampa Planning and Development Department and the Art Programs Division. They can not advise on the artist selection and each mural owner has their own way of selecting talent. Some galleries and private entities commission world-renowned artists, others – invest in supporting fresh local talents.

Exploring Tampa urban art scene, GNV URBAN ART contacted Tony and Michelle of Illsol that we met at the FAPAP Conference in 2018 in Tampa. Since then, we see each other at major urban art events, such as St. Petersburg’s SHINE or  Miami Art Week. The husband & wife artist team works under the moniker Illsol and is based in Tampa. They have established a contemporary art gallery in Tampa Heights to give local and international artists a fresh artist-curated place to show their work. Who would better explain to us the local urban art scene?

Tampa Urban Art Scene Explained by Illsol

Illsol: Tampa is great, because it is a blank slate, but also has some very authentic seeds that have been planted throughout history that are notable in the contemporary art world — now is the time where we are just sitting back and watering those seeds and watching them grow… Not to give you a whole history lesson on Tampa – but there’s no other way to tell you what makes Tampa unique without getting into details – so here we go! Tampa is Authentic and real. That’s what makes it dope!
“Stay Curious” by BASK and Tes One, collaboration

Poe Parking Garage is immediately surrounded by several of Tampa’s cultural assets, and the vibrant design of the murals interpret the call to “Stay Curious” reminding guests of all ages to continuing learning and experiencing the arts. The large scale murals, prominently painted along Gasparilla Plaza as well as in other areas of the garage, are visible and welcome visitors into downtown Tampa as one approaches from I-275 and for those coming from the West Tampa area via Cass Street. “Stay Curious” by artists Bask and Tes One celebrates and promotes the creative culture of Tampa Bay.

Illsol:  There are two artists that really kick-started the Tampa scene back in 2005-2006 for outdoor art – these artists are very well known and established in both Tampa and St. Pete and go by BASK and Tes One. Tes One actually conceptualized Shine on St. Pete Mural Festival. They both came from a graffiti background and used to paint permission and illegal walls back in the late 1990s. Tes is also a staple in Tampa hip hop, he’s good friends with Dj Fader, who is one of the founders of Old Dirty Sunday’s, a hip hop showcase that still takes place in Tampa every Sunday at Crowbar – and has brought in emcees and Dj’s from all over the world – once I rolled up there and saw Mos Def and Talib Kweli just spinning records at this bar! That’s the type of scene Tampa has… It’s underground and quiet – not making a lot of noise about what it has behind its doors…
“American Journey” by Michael Parker

Ybor mural “American Journey” by Michael Parker, was supported by the City of Tampa, community volunteers and art students from Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus. The mural covers 12,000 square feet of corrugated surface area and claims to be the largest outdoor original artwork in the state of Florida.  The mural depicts the aspects and struggles of the “American Journey”:  an immigrant family standing at the beginning of their journey, peace and security of home and family, tension between Spanish and Cuban citizens during the Cuban Revolution, the struggle for equality among the black population, the changing role of women, the class conflict between management and working class and the desire to stay near home while at the same time hungering for new experience and opportunity.  Throughout, this mural shows the values of our nation – a place people from many nations came to enjoy freedom.

“American Journey” by Michael Parker

Michael Parker is a working Artist based in the Tampa Bay area.  He has a versatile approach to engaging community members in the process of public art and making it accessible to anyone.  Michael has extensive experience working with communities on public and community art projects.  With public mural commissions across the country, Michael emphatically calls the Tampa Area home. He has taught a wide range of arts courses, including very unique community arts courses, as a member of the arts faculty at the University of South Florida and the University of Montana. While in Tampa he also Co-founded and ran a non-profit organization for 6 years called Community Stepping Stones, whose mission is concerned with the quality of life in neighborhoods.

Illsol: Tes and BASK are huge inspirations for outdoor art, as they’ve merged a lot of ideas from their background in graffiti to painting some of the first large-scale outdoor murals in 2006-2007. Also, my wife and I went to USF, and we hold degrees from the USF art department. USF has an incredible contemporary art museum called CAM. Back in 2008, Beautiful Losers rolled through Tampa and I was fortunate enough to work with Shepard Fairey (OBEY) on a wheat paste project with my friend Jay Giroux (who is also another staple artist in Tampa). Beautiful Losers was one of the most inspirational and influential exhibits I’ve ever seen, and it came to Tampa at the right time.

“Dream Pushers” by Illsol

Just north of Ybor City, sits a campus of city facilities that serves the V.M. Ybor and East Tampa communities and include a city park with football field, a newly-restored above grade pool originally built in 1937, and, The Dream Center, a city building leased to a nonprofit, faith-based organization. The Center offers after school programs and youth mentoring. The south and west walls of The Dream Center served as the canvas for the murals. In 1885, the V.M. Ybor neighborhood (named for the Vicente Martinez Ybor, Spanish founder of Ybor City’s Cigar Industry) was settled by Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants of the local cigar industry. The artists depicted this history on the southern façade of the building through imagery and the colors featured in the Spanish, Cuban and Italian flags. The artists have featured a 1930s era swimmer and the nearby JC Newman cigar factory clock. The colors used on the south-wall wrap around to the back, or west-side of the building, and complement this mural, that depicts the contemporary use of the space.

Illsol: A lot of our murals started out as city projects, we were getting hired by the city a lot to do historical murals because the first mural we ever did was used to protest FDOT for an interstate expansion through our historic neighborhood. We wanted to use art to bring attention to the socioeconomic injustices of the interstate system of the 1960s since most of the interstates in the US were built directly over black/minority neighborhoods during the height of civil rights movement — we painted our first mural in protest of the interstate, and it actually helped to save the historic building our gallery is in now. Fun fact, FDOT district 7 actually fired everyone and reset their interstate project because of the protests we were a part of…
Recently we’ve been able to step outside of the historical element, for instance, we were just hired by the Westshore City Center in the business district, and we painted a metaphorical image with a lot of abstract symbolism.
Illsol: As our murals progressed, we started using more symbolism to make a point, rather than be so direct. With city projects, they have a lot of constraints, generally, so the imagery has to be more direct, for instance we painted a blue and white mural in West Tampa that speaks directly to the area and features actual historical people and places from the district — but the bird and magnolia mural was a “neighborhood” mural, without having anything directly related to Tampa Heights, the neighborhood we live in. We just painted something pretty with things you might find in the back yards of a Tampa Heights home – and we love nature. In a perfect utopia, both my wife and I see a world with no lawns and just urban gardens where people eat and live off their own property and have birds and butterflies everywhere, and deer just roll up through the city… haha, sometimes we like to just create that world through our artwork….
Various artists, Tampa Bay Fresh Fest

Tampa Bay Fresh Fest sponsored by Blick Art Materials transformed three properties in collaboration with over 20 young and known muralists.
Completed artworks were celebrated at the block party with invited DJs, open cipher for dancers, where guests could meet the artists and check out the last touches on their mural progress.

Illsol: A graffiti jam takes place every year called Fresh Fest or Tampa Bay Fresh Fest – we’re not involved in the project but it brings a lot of artists from all over every year to the city to just spruce up walls that need color. There’s not really a professional curation process for the project — it’s nice in that way — its more of a community love type of event in that if you can paint and have paint and the time you can pretty much paint in the event, it’s all about who you know and respect really. It’s regulated like Wynwood spots in that way, and that’s a good thing to have in this area for a lot of artists, and property owners and neighborhoods are getting used to the nice variety and diversity of artwork. It goes on for about a week every February.
Zulu Painter and Sebastian Coolidge, Tampa Bay Fresh Fest

Illsol: Tampa also has Red Letter1 – ran by Phil Holt. Phil is an amazing tattoo artist and ran Red Letter1 as a gallery for years in Ybor City while the Tampa scene was budding. Phil brought artists like Shawn Barber, Saber, Logan Hicks, Adam 5100, Jeremy Fish, and so many others through his gallery and tattoo shop. This was in 2004-2010 — It truly opened the door for an authentic contemporary landscape that is really going to keep Tampa on the map in the global contemporary art scene, through his history with the global scene – you can’t erase history, and Tampa has so many nuances of connections in the global contemporary arts scene that it really shines in that way. Phil still works and lives in Tampa, and Red Letter1 is still operating in Hyde Park.

Tampa Bay Fresh Fest
Illsol: We got our start painting outdoor art by being influenced by BASK and Tes, but since my background is in stenciling, electronic media and graffiti, and Michelle’s background was in traditional art, and she also apprenticed as a tattoo artist for a time — our work wasn’t as gritty as what BASK and Tes were producing. Which sort of brought a nice new flavor of a bit of traditional mixed with urban art to the streets of Tampa — and we feel our work is still evolving as a team, which is good – because street art is evolving.
Tampa Bay Fresh Fest

In 2017 Illsol started a contemporary art gallery in Tampa Heights to give local and international artists a fresh artist-curated place to show work. The goal of the venue is to build connections in the contemporary art world to expose Tampa to quality art through a laid-back experience. The space has hosted shows featuring artwork from internationally known contemporary artists as well as established Tampa bay area artists such as Justin WagherJujmoBekky BeukkesPalehorseTes One. The space has also shown work by muralists such as Sentrock and many others. The team also formed Heights Walls, which is a community mural initiative that helps to grow neighborhood connections through public art installations. Giving back to the community they live and work in is a priority.

Illsol: Our gallery, Mergeculture gallery is also bringing other artists from all over to Tampa, as we are trying to work with the Tampa Museum of Art, and other organization to really bring some quality exhibits to the area. Our gallery represents a lot of the original artists from the NYC subway graffiti movement in the 1970s, such as Blade, Part One, Lady Pink, and Crash, as well as artists like Birdcap (Memphis), Sentrock (Chicago), and Lillipore (Los Angeles). Right now we’re working on a festival called Ignite Hillsborough that actually includes Pow Wow – which is aiming to come here in 2021. We’re in committee building and funding stages for that, and we’ll definitely let you know more about that soon!
Tristan Eaton

LA-based artist Tristan Eaton that we talked about in The Palm Beaches Outoor Museum article was comissioned to paint a mural on the side of Bern’s Steak House in honor of its 60th Anniversary. The project was arranged by CASS Contemporary The mural design features Florida panthers intertwined with classical statues. The imagery includes much of the steakhouse’s rich history including the face of the founder, the ornate iron work inside, the rich wood, parts of a map displayed, as well as some references to Bacchus (the Roman god of agriculture and wine) and Artemis (the Greek goddess of the hunt).

Illsol: CASS Contemporary hold shows by artists such as Tristan Eaton, London Police and other big contemporary names and have a nice collector base and contacts. They operate in the Hyde Park area – I feel like CASS really took off where Phil Holt’s gallery portion of Red Letter1 left off years ago. CASS is a gem to have in the city, they’ve brought some great work here and have really kept the Tampa Scene connected.

Another project of CASS Contemporary in Tampa. Faith XLVII, was commissioned to create a mural on the exterior wall of Haven restaurant. Born in South Africa and based in Los Angeles, California, Faith considers her work a spiritual release that speaks to the complexities of the human condition, its deviant histories and existential search.

Illsol: CASS Contemporary gallery is connected with Juxtapoz and the contemporary scene — they work with clients all over like Steve Aoki and high profile art collectors. Cass Contemporary commissioned the Faith XLVII mural, and they have some PichiAvo (love their stuff!) in the Epicurean Hotel’s autograph collection. Our gallery has a bit of overlap and we’re building some collections now locally as well, but CASS is a young gallery, about 5 years open now, and they’ve really taken off with their connections and collectors…. They’ve commissioned some really great projects, notably the Cyrcle mural, a Beau Stanton in Armature Works, the Faith XLVII mural, as well as sponsored a few Shine on St. Pete walls through the years from Hueman and some others.

CASS, Contemporary Art Space & Studio, is a Tampa-based art gallery focusing on modern, collectible art pieces from local, regional, national and international artists. CASS presents various exhibitions throughout the year and offers lectures and workshops from emerging and established artists. The gallery also provides art-consulting services.

“Fertilizer” by Leon Keer

Illsol: Another gallery/connection is Tempus Projects – Tampa’s longest-running gallery. One of the board members is actually one of the curators for USF Contemporary Art Museum as well – but Tempus Projects is definitely a staple in the art scene in Tampa – they are behind the Crab Devil which is Tampa’s own version of “Meow Wolf” that is opening up next year. Tempus Projects is going on over 10 years as a nonprofit gallery, and a lot of their shows are academic in nature with some overlap in urban contemporary art.

Not only galleries, but small businesses or individuals can arrange a mural. 3D mural “Fertilizer” by Leon Keer in Tampa was commissioned by Grant and Jordan of The Basel House. Fertilizer can grow your crops but can also pollute the area – was the inspiration behind the mural. Tampa applied fertilizer restrictions that are designed to keep Florida’s frequent rain from washing potentially harmful nitrogen or phosphorous into the state’s waterways. In several places, those restrictions are tightened during the summer months. The ordinances affect residents who self-apply fertilizers, as well as professional landscapers who use the products. The fertilizers can cause algae blooms and kill fish. According to Florida Today, Tampa Bay’s water quality has improved since fertilizer ordinances took effect. The video progress of the artwork by Leon Keer that delivers environmental message can be seen here.

Thanks so much, Tony and Michelle! We appreciate your determination in introducing us to the Tampa urban art scene! Thanking also for your hard work, support of the local community, and love! We sincerely hope to collaborate with you in the future.

Donut you just love Tampa?

Thanks to our readers for taking this virtual mural tour to Tampa. If you haven’t checked yet, we also traveled to MiamiFort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg,  The Palm Beaches, and Sarasota funded by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Next, we are going to find out: whether Orlando needs urban art if it has Disney?

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