“On the back wall of the Asylum nightclub, facing a parking lot on Free Street, stands a 1,500-square-foot mural painted – and paid for – by a collection of talented Maine graffiti artists.
“This one was like a gift to Portland,” said Mike Rich, the 37-year-old de facto curator of the space, which has been reserved for graffiti art since 1997. “Out of the infinite possibilities of themes, of what we could paint, of what we’d want to paint, we painted this.”
Rich grew up on Munjoy Hill and started making graffiti in 1985, when he was 11. He began painting murals at 14 and started painting the Asylum in 1997, after proposing it to the nightclub’s owners.
“It was just getting bombarded with vandalism all the time,” Rich said. “It’s a dark parking lot on a one-way street, and I thought, ‘Geez, let’s see if they’ll give us permission to do something, and then we can do something really awesome.’”
Before its latest incarnation – completed Sunday after a month of toil – the space featured a spooky montage from Stephen King horror novels. Before King, the scene was George W. Bush and Armageddon.
This time around, vibrant colors and big, bold block letters infect the mural with joy. Eight artists filled each letter in P-O-R-T-L-A-N-D with their own styles, making for a brassy but cohesive whole.
A rocky coast is below the letters. Above them is an orange-yellow sky radiating from the iconic Portland Head lighthouse image – with an aerosol can standing in for the limestone tower and two rays of white enveloping the words “Greetings From” … instead of a beam of light.
“Ties it all together,” said Rich, who painted the P. “I’m totally thrilled with the way it came out.”
He’s also proud of the mural’s do-it-yourself nature. The nightclub hosted a fundraiser one night last summer. Otherwise, artists brought their own materials and donated their time. Rich pegged the cost of supplies at $1,500 to $2,000.
“We did something great for the city of Portland, especially in this time, with the whole graffiti ordinance downtown,” Rich said. “There just seemed to be a lot of tension with the art form itself. I thought it would be a really good gesture to do something, and have a little class, too. To show that we can do something nice and it’s not all undecipherable to the common person, you know?”
In June, the City Council adopted an anti-graffiti ordinance calling for fines of as much as $500 for perpetrators. Property owners are required to file plans with the city for removing graffiti within 10 days after it’s reported.
Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney’s on Fore Street, is president of the Portland’s Downtown District board of directors and a leading advocate of the ordinance.
“Well-conceived street art is not what we’re talking about here,” Fuss said. “The stuff that we’re talking about is tagging, and it’s taking paint pens and writing on meters and etching glass and even painting pretty large-scale pieces.”
The Asylum wall, he said, “as long as it’s well-curated, which that one is, I think, is a completely separate world from vandalism.”
Rich and his artistic friends covered three other walls of the building in colorful murals, one of which includes a whimsical puffin. Now, his biggest worry is the annual tradition of repainting the wall.
“This year’s mural is so good,” Rich said, “it’s going to make me cry if we have to paint over it next year.”