Get a ringside seat: MTO is not pulling any punches in his latest mural
The email I received two days ago from Berlin-based street artist MTO read something like a ransom note in its brevity.
The message provided an address (2211 Fruitville Road), along with the instruction, “Go check this: Go, Go, Denise, Go!, a mural by MTO,” and a brief explanation of the artist’s message—not that an explanation seemed particularly necessary once I laid eyes on the piece.
This one packs a direct punch. Literally.
The unmistakable visage of Sarasota Chalk Festival founder and tireless advocate for the evolution of Sarasota’s public arts scene, Denise Kowal, is emblazoned on the black-washed wall of the Sarasota Fight and Fitness Club in MTO’s characteristic hyper-realistic black and white portrait style. With one gloved fist raised to shield a determined, steely stare, Kowal is depicted mid-strike, extending her right arm to deliver a knockout blow to an invisible opponent.
(You may feel compelled to listen to this as you continue to read. You’re welcome.) The mural comes as a surprise to most—including Kowal, who said that until MTO asked her to pose with boxing gloves for reference photos shortly before the mural went up, she received no indication that she would be the subject of his latest work.
Going Vertical’s executive manager, Kafi Benz, facilitated MTO’s most recent visit this month so that he could work on a mural in Manatee County that had already been commissioned by the campaign. The unexpected Go, Go, Denise, Go! mural was conceived and completed over the course of just four days during the same visit.
“It was amazing to see the joy involved when people found out it was going up. The support is pretty amazing,” Benz said. “MTO is the only Going Vertical artist that people actually come to us and offer to sponsor.”
It took tremendous group effort on behalf of Benz, the artist and the Going Vertical campaign, but in just a few frantic days, MTO acquired temporary sponsorship and attained the materials and heavy equipment that made the mural possible. According to Benz, the project cost an estimated $5,000. The boxing club wall space (the largest MTO piece in Sarasota yet, measuring at 30’ x 100’) was recommended by model Kenneth Blake, who posed for MTO’s last large piece, Dr. Robin, at the Sarasota Architectural Salvage in spring.
“MTO tends to fall in love with walls,” Benz said. “He takes into account the entire setting, not just the canvas. He was in love with this one the moment he saw it.” Now, most people who haven’t been trapped under a rock (or a behemoth fallen make-out statue—heh, sorry) over the past year should recall the last two MTO murals that ruffled feathers in Sarasota: the now-infamous Fast Life mural on the Tube Dude building that was painted over in April as a direct result of the controversy surrounding it, and the Dr. Robin mural, which also created a bit of a stir because it initially included PG-13 language that called “bullshit” on the naysayers responsible for Fast Life’s removal.
This time, MTO left no room for error in translation. Unlike the previous two murals, Go Go, Denise, Go! bears no script (aside from the artist’s signature, “MTO,” printed on Kowal’s boxing glove)—but the writing is on the wall nonetheless, and the message rings loud and clear.
“This piece was made to show support to the Chalk Festival and more specifically to Denise Kowal for the many struggles she regularly has to go through against close-minded local complainers,” MTO’s email stated simply.
The email message concluded with a link to a Nov. 27 ABC7 News feature regarding the concerns of Burns Square business owners who were displeased with the street art created during this year’s Chalk Festival and the coinciding Going Vertical campaign. MTO cites the video as “one of the many possible examples” of the opposition Kowal faces in her efforts to enhance the community through with public art initiatives such as the Chalk Festival.
“I don’t try to pick out cookie cutter artists [for the Chalk Festival],” Kowal explained. “I try to choose a diverse group of well-known artists that will start a conversation … We do this festival to promote tourism. People will not come if it’s all homogenized.”
Ever since MTO first arrived in Sarasota to launch the Going Vertical campaign with the installation of the Fast Life mural during last year’s Chalk Festival, Kowal has fought in the street artist’s corner and has borne the brunt of the backlash his work received from relatively small, but fiercely oppositional factions of an otherwise supportive local community.
“The mural represents what he sees us go through … This year was just dumbfounding,” Kowal said, referencing the Chalk Festival murals that were removed earlier this month due to the complaints of Burns Square business owners. “Not one of the people who complained reached out to me or the artists—not even once. They went straight to the property owners and demanded to have them removed,” she added.
“It’s his assessment of the social milieu,” Benz said of the Go, Go, Denise, Go! mural. “That such a small group of people could cause such a brouhaha dumbfounded him. He laid back and watched it all unfold—his intellectual proclivity is to sit back and be objective—and responded with this.”
Benz said that the Going Vertical campaign ultimately shares similar goals with Chalk Festival. (Although the two are often confused for one in the same, the Chalk Festival and Going Vertical are separate entities.)
“The Chalk Festival brings so much immediate tourism to local restaurants and hotels, but the work is ephemeral, whereas the Going Vertical murals persist for a much greater length of time. That permanence, as well as the commercial aspect to the tourism the murals bring, is important,” she explained.
Despite the cluster of individuals who opposed some of the murals created over the course of the past year, Benz and Kowal said that majority of responses to both the Going Vertical and Chalk Festival initiatives have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Street art is almost entirely unprecedented in Sarasota, and I think the biggest part of the problem is that it’s been misunderstood,” Benz said.
“But being confronted by things that challenge us is fundamental to learning,” Kowal added. “We know that most people are highly intelligent; that they won’t pre-judge a work, but will instead give themselves the opportunity to appreciate and understand it … We give very big liberties to our artists because we want them here. We want their art.”
Will MTO’s latest work be able to hold its own, or will its detractors knock it down for the count and send it the way of Fast Life? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: It is not going down without a fight.