Spirit of Rowan 2023: Rowan County has seen a mural explosion

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

It seems like you turn a corner in Rowan County and you’ll run into a mural these days.

Drive through downtown Salisbury and you’ll see one on local businesses such as Yummy Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese restaurant on North Long Street, or at The Fish Bowl, a bar off of East Innes Street. Or drive on U.S. 52 and you’ll see a mural across from Rockwell’s town hall. Take your car down North Main Street in China Grove and you’ll see one on the side of the Grove Cartel Brewing Co. Cruise through Faith’s downtown and you’ll see one on the side of the old Faith fire house.

You get the point.

Murals have become a popular way for towns and businesses to show their uniqueness and have added to the beauty in the county. But they’ve come a long way.

At first, murals were simply advertisements. Before television and radio commercials flooded the airwaves, open walls on buildings were seen as a creative and cheap way for businesses to advertise their products. A garage, barn, warehouse or city high-rise all became canvases.

According to Terry Holt, chairman of the Rowan Museum board of directors and former history teacher, these ads really took off in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, especially when 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration as part of his New Deal program. Artists and painters were hired by advertisement firms to create large-scale ads on the sides of buildings for around $40. If they saw an open-wall on a building that they thought could be used for an advertisement, they would ask the business owner if they could paint a one.

“The business owner would ask, ‘Well, what’s it going to cost me,’ and they would say, ‘It won’t cost you anything,’ ” Holt said. “And so usually the business owner would agree.”

With the creation of electric signs, painted wall advertisements slowly faded from popularity. But that didn’t stop the artists.

Graffiti emerged in the 1970s and became popular throughout the 1980s, especially in New York City, as artists took to abandoned buildings and subway trains to spray paint, wanting to have a freer and bigger space to show off their art. Early pioneers of graffiti, also known as street art, like Keith Haring and Jean Michael-Basquiat became some of the most notable figures in the art world during this time, going on to showcase their pieces in art galleries throughout New York City and the country. But views toward the graffiti started to shift. Some thought it was dirty and wanted to clean it up.

“In New York City in the ’80s they had a bad graffiti problem and they had a mayor who said, ‘We need to stop this, we need to crush it,’ so he made a point to put funding toward buffing all the graffiti and snubbing it out because it was kind of out of control and they did,” said Shane Pierce, a local mural artist in Salisbury. Pierce is also known as Abstract Dissent.

Calling Pierce a “local mural artist” doesn’t give the artist enough credit. A better title would be “the preeminent mural artist of Rowan County,” because most of the murals you see around the county are his work. He credits the rise in popularity of murals in Rowan, and also around the country to three things:

• A British documentary called “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” that follows anonymous street artist Banksy and others as they create art pieces in cities around the world became massively popular, being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

• The rise of social media, which has made it easier for street artists to showcase their work, while also making it easier for fans to view it.

• Better and more controllable spray paint has been created that allows street artists to add more detail to murals. Pierce said the spray paint now could be used for “fine art.”

When asked why he thought his murals have become so popular in the county, Pierce couldn’t really say.

“I came up here and painted and people started asking for it. To me, I didn’t know why they were making a big deal about it,” Pierce said. “It’s like there was a void in town and they were waiting for somebody like me to come fill it. It was the strangest thing.”

Pierce only started spray-painting five years ago, an incredible feat if you’ve ever seen his work. He isn’t exactly sure how many he has done in Rowan, but thinks it’s upwards to dozens. The first mural he ever completed was in North Rowan Elementary and he has completed more for other schools.

The demand for his murals hasn’t slowed down since he first started and it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. He said that the community has really come together and has supported his art and the murals you see all over the county.

“We all support each other now…I’m going to do whatever the town asks and try to be involved,” Pierce said.