Wall played

Art Basel take two: Street art in Wynwood, it's complicated

Muralation: An aerial shot of Ever's mural in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.

Also in this issue, Guardian writer Matt Sussman on who got the hype -- and who earned it -- in the galleries at Art Basel Miami 2011

VISUAL ART The popular face of Miami is made of aqua blue views and chrome rims, but the parts of Wynwood that haven't been covered by murals yet look more like asphalt and the muted tones of low-cost rentals. Since the 1950s it's been largely a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It's also where many African Americans moved when they got priced out of the Overtown neighborhood to the south, where they were originally relegated by Jim Crow laws.

But, in a high-low art tornado last month, Wynwood is also where I learn that the popular legend labeling the Mission District the neighborhood with the most densely-packed street art in the world is total bunk.

Wynwood's main drag Second Avenue is Clarion Alley on acid. Having come straight from Miami International Airport, my rental car barely inches down the strip, so omnipresent are the weaving, goggling packs of urban art voyeurs in oversized silk shirt-dresses and vertiginous wedge heels or where'd-you-get-'em sneakers. The only sign of the neighborhood's year-round residents are the sporadic flaggers in self-bought orange vests waving cars into parking spots.

Angry sharks, Persian cat-women, color-washed streetcars, and owls sitting shotgun in convertibles — sometimes layered on top of each other — grace walls here. Designs pour off walls and onto the sidewalk. Here, the fairytale nymphs and walking houses of Os Gemeos on a fancy restaurant; there, a massive black-and-white photo wheatpaste by JR of bulging, watching eyes that echo the look of passers-by. I nearly break my neck on Mexico City artists Sego and Saner's horned beetle-men, who clutch amulets and wear fanged leopard masks on the backs of their heads. Absolut Vodka has occupied a parking lot with a temporary open-air club, dotting it with human-sized aerosol cans and fencing it off with chainlink. It's enough to make any street art fan lose their shit, or at least the rental car.

I've parachuted into the middle of Miami's yearly art inferno, a.k.a. the week that the Art Basel art fair comes to town. Since 2002, this Swedish import has filled Miami Beach Convention Center with astronomically-priced works from over 260 international galleries. Umpteen ancillary art and design fairs populate deco hotel-land and its surrounds during this time — the city becomes one largely, loudly turned-out gallery opening.

Wynwood, with its surplus of 80-foot blank walls, hosts many an art collection — but it's most visible contribution to the scene is its dense network of murals. Of these, the undisputed center is a compound of buildings grouped around a courtyard of marquee works dubbed Wynwood Walls. The properties were purchased by (in)famous neighborhood rejuvenator Tony Goldman in 2004. Many hold Goldman responsible for the gentrification of Soho, South Beach, and city center Philadelphia.

Wynwood Walls is his carefully orchestrated attempt to use the allure of street art to change the area's economic fortune. Shortly before Art Basel 2011, Goldman produced a series of YouTube shorts dubbed "Here Comes the Neighborhood," in which longtime graffiti photographer Martha Cooper cheerfully opines "Now we've got something [street art] that people are calling the biggest art movement in history of the world. And it just might be."

The night of my arrival, the amount of in-progress murals at which the crawling traffic gives one an opportunity to gawk is striking. At least a dozen artists labor within a four-block radius, greeting fans, drinking beers and staring up at their half-finished creations contemplatively.

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