WILMINGTON — After a year-long dispute with the city that evolved into a legal battle over a mural, a downtown Wilmington business owner was given a check this month for another work of wall art four blocks away.
Joe Apkarian previously took the City of Wilmington to court after he was informed the mural within his dug-out stairwell into Pour House, a basement bar at the corner of Front and Market streets, was in violation of the city’s historic code.
This month he was handed a $2,500 check for a mural at Tacobaby, which he co-owns, a 5-minute walk from Pour House.
“The humor’s not lost on me,” he said Tuesday.
Artist Nathan Verwey painted the mural atop the Tacobaby storefront over the summer. The business also tapped Verwey for its interior wall art, a neon rendering of its logo. Verwey is well known for his pieces throughout the city, including the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. portrait covering the side of a Princess Street building. The inspiration for the mural at Tacobaby was a collaborative effort between Apkarian, the artist and design team, the business owner said. He knew from the jump they wanted it to catch the attention of passersby and fit the theme of the restaurant.
“I think it started to go down the road of like, ‘Hey, what if we did a reimagination of Rosie the Riveter-kind of thing?’ and, ‘Oh, let’s add some sunglasses,’” Apkarian recalled. Then they began to experiment with the comic sound effect: Snap? Crunch? Then, finally, “‘Well, why don’t do we do ‘Baby?’”
The end result is a Rosie-esque blonde with red lips and hot pink sunglasses. A mimic of a comic book onomatopoeia — “Baby!” — is printed beside her in yellow with a multi-color backdrop.
A representative of Wilmington Downtown, Inc. popped into the business after it was complete to ask about awarding funds to cover a portion of the project, as part of the organization’s Facade Improvement Grant Program. The initiative helps offset the costs of storefront upgrades in downtown’s central business district. After a pause in the annual program last year due to Covid-19, WDI is allocating $15,000 this fiscal year to the program, dispersed so far across five businesses.
“This was WDI coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, I really like what you did there. We want to give you money,” Apkarian said. “I was like, ‘OK.’”
Christina Haley, vice president of marketing and business outreach at WDI, said she had been conducting visits to businesses.
“I wanted to reach out to them to let them know that we had this program that could help them support that work,” she said. “Both in the upkeep of that façade and also in the new signage, which is through their artwork piece.”
Ironically, WDI receives funding from the city — the same city that drove Apkarian to drop roughly $15,000 in legal bills because it considered his mural at Pour House a “sign” that required a certificate of appropriateness. Even with the certificate, the “sign” couldn’t exceed 50 square feet.
President of WDI Holly Childs clarified the nonprofit does not take a stance on the incorporation of public art downtown, but it is in the business of helping small businesses improve their frontage.
The city contracts WDI to provide services to the 70-block municipal services district. Properties within the district pay an extra 7-cent tax, generating more than $375,000 in estimated revenue each year.
Despite his issues with the first mural at Pour House, Apkarian indicated he didn’t hesitate to pursue the art atop Tacobaby’s doorway. That’s because, unlike his underground bar, the trendy taco joint is located outside the limits of the local historic district.
“That’s the line between where I can do that and no one bothers me and get money for it,” Apkarian said, “as opposed to … you have a Historic Preservation Commission that’s gonna come and tell you what you can and can’t do.”
Comprising late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures, the part of the city designated as the “downtown commercial historic district overlay” beckons more stringent design review; to cover a wall in art, a business must obtain permission from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. The overlay sits within the boundaries of Princess, 3rd and Orange streets.
The “I Believe in Wilmington” art on Second Street — which is fastened to the building and framed by plaques of financial sponsors — is just footsteps outside the border, at the Princess Street crossroad. The work by artist Ryan Capron was hung in 2018 by Billy Mellon, owner of Manna and Bourgie Nights nearby. That year Mellon told Port City Daily he’d researched allowable signage within the city ordinances and to be safe, placed the piece in a frame.
Pour House’s mural, painted by Australian-based artist Steen Jones, had been up for a year when the first violation letter came in over the summer of 2020. Apkarian was out of the state at that time, contracting with FEMA on virus response to keep the shut-down bar alive at the onset of Covid-19 and executive stay-at-home orders. Pour House ended up shuttered for more than 10 months.
To this day Apkarian doesn’t know if an actual complaint was submitted or if it was just the Historic Preservation Commission conducting a walk-around and “deciding to go after a business that’s been forcibly shut down.” The stairwell, he noted, was dug out some years ago and is not historic in and of itself.
After unsuccessful hearings with the Historical Preservation Commission and the City of Wilmington Board of Adjustment, Apkarian said he filed a lawsuit that was taken to arbitration. As part of the settlement, Pour House had to cover one of the three sides of the stairwell.
Apkarian said he asked the city how they preferred he rid of the mural on one wall.
“They said, ‘Oh, we don’t care. Paint it red,’” Apkarian said. “So I’ve literally covered up world-class artwork for a red wall.”
Murals have been points of contention among artists and business owners in the city for some time, but Wilmington is taking steps toward being more mural friendly. It recently revamped its land development code, which includes regulations for signage and public art. The updated ordinance goes into effect this December. Within the new code, murals of unlimited square footage are allowed on Castle Street (from the river to Wrightsville Avenue) and North Fourth Street (from Red Cross to Nixon street) –– the area known as the Brooklyn Arts District.
“That’s where we’re already seeing some murals and some interest in placing murals,” said Kathryn Thurston, zoning administrator with the city, “and they’re outside of the locally designated historic district, so they’re not subject to any kind of design review by the Historic Preservation Commission. So they seemed like good areas to have pilot projects for murals.”
Under the code, a property owner located in the central business district (like Tacobaby) and outside the historic district overlay can place a sign on any façade, with an area up to 20% of the wall it’s attached to, at a maximum of 200 square feet.
The new LDC does little to avoid another situation similar to Pour House. It still classifies murals as a type of sign, subject to the same size limitations as other signs in the districts. Yet, when Apkarian walks around downtown, he notices numerous blank canvases.
“How cool would it be for people to be, like, ‘Yo, have you been to Wilmington? Have you seen the artwork?’ Like, be able to walk around and see amazing art?” he said. “There’s amazing artists in this town. There’s amazing tattoo artwork in this town. There’s a vibrant art community here. Why are we not highlighting that? Showing that? Throw that up on some walls.”
Muralist Rob Fogle said he has been eyeing the side of a parking deck downtown as a blank canvas, but hasn’t touched downtown with a paintbrush since he was directed to remove a mural in the Brooklyn Arts District the day after it was painted. Fogle said he agrees older buildings in Wilmington need to be preserved, but there are “other buildings that certainly can be painted and would benefit from it.”
Meanwhile, in Carolina Beach, he’s created a Fort Fisher Hermit homage behind The Last Resort and a pirate-themed storefront for Flaming Amy’s.
With the support of public officials, Carolina Beach now has a mural project to promote art installations around the island that showcase the town’s history and tell its stories. It just installed its seventh last week, “Indigenous Fly Feaster,” by local artist Tiffany “Nugget” Machler.
Apkarian believes the projects in Carolina Beach show that Wilmington is “missing it,” while the beach town, like Raleigh, Charlotte and Charleston, embraces public art.
“Every wall down here should have artwork on it. Every brick space should have vibrant artwork,” Apkarian said. “It is what thriving downtown arts and entertainment districts look like anywhere in the country. Except here.”
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