Written by Faun Finley
Greensboro, N.C. - “Topical” street art is the newest passion of Marty Kotis, who has brought diverse styles of street art — from graffiti to stencil and figurative to abstract to neo-cubism — to Greensboro. But how does a commercial developer and restaurateur become a patron of street art?
For one, Kotis has always been focused on the aesthetics of the areas he develops. Beautifying commercial buildings and endearing them with long-lasting quality are high priorities for him. He wouldn’t be satisfied either if his brewery and restaurants simply provide customers with a satiated stomach or pleased palate. He wants their eyes to enjoy a visual feast as well.
But he still wanted to do more. That’s where street art comes in.
Kotis is a globetrotter and has been heavily influenced by culture beyond the U.S. In London, he saw figurative murals by artists like Vhils, Dan Kitchener, and R.O.N.E. that resonated with him. “R.O.N.E goes where buildings are crumbling, vines are growing and his pieces blend in with nature,” says Kotis. “I can already envision his work at Tracks Beer Garden.”
Bristol is where Kotis got the idea about the need for a graf shop in Greensboro from immersing himself in Upfest, a big festival where street art is featured in clustered areas and flanked by multiple installations by the local artist Banksy.
It’s Berlin that may have been key to the next evolution in street art for Greensboro, though. That’s where he stumbled upon “Urban Spree,” an old dilapidated warehouse area turned into urban playgrounds for art and music. It’s where Kotis connected with graffiti art. “I went on a graffiti tour (and even took at street art painting class) and I began to understand the concept of graffiti reclaiming the landscape, using pieces to spark discussion and provided shock value.”
Which brings us back to topical street art. This is art that reflects our top-of-mind issues in provocative and audacious ways. “This kind of art challenges our well-worn perspectives and forces us to see things differently,” says Kotis. “It’s time for this to be added to the current street art amalgam.”
That amalgam — just in case you’ve been using your Uber rides to take naps — includes about 60 murals in the Greensboro area that adorn Kotis’ properties.
Among those 60 is a kind of “futuristic Tokyo” on RED Cinema’s south-facing wall by British painter Dan Kitchener who goes by DANK. A powerful set of portraits was done by Matt Adnate, who painted Lumbee and Tuscaroran tribe members in full regalia. One portrait is on the Midtown Financial Advisors building on Battleground Avenue; the other thrives in an underpass at Tracks Bazaar close to Eugene Street. The most recognizable baby in Greensboro is a self-portrait of sorts painted by Brian Lewis, a.k.a. JEKS. Pink and floating underwater with a spray paint can in his hand, JEKS is on a wall between Westover and Lawndale.
What does the City think of this? “Street art makes art more accessible all around and that’s a positive thing,” said Nancy Hoffman, City Councilmember and co-chair of the Greensboro Cultural Arts Master Plan. “Street art shows people that art doesn’t have to be ‘stuffy.’ That, in turn, may motivate them to seek art inside museums and galleries,” she added.
Evolving street art even further, Kotis is adding topical pieces that could shake things up a little – or a lot. You might laugh, you might feel reflective, or you could become outraged - the interpretation is yours to make, as it always is in art.
One of the new pieces is a commentary on our enmeshed digital lives by Bella Amaral and Justin Phame(Bella Phame) called, Screen Time. At the heart of their work is the relationship of balance and equity. “We believe in balance in colors, in life - in everything,” they said.
While in New York, Bella Phame witnessed myriad occurrences of one person being present in a two-person conversation. “One person was always staring at their phone screen and missing everything that’s around them,” they said.
When we can’t pull ourselves away from our screens, and are unaware of the people, the vibrancy and the activity in our midst, we’re lost in a bubble at best. At worst, we have an addiction.
A serious one.
Bella Phame are the protagonists in their work. Their characters are larger-than-life and never painted in flesh tones. Bella is green and Phame is purple. They discovered that rendering themselves in their own life experiences makes their concepts more personal and relatable. They like to add a shade of mystery, too, by integrating word search puzzles. Decoded, the words have relevant meaning to the topic and to the local community.
If Bella Phame’s characters are larger than life, so is their current canvas. Instead of a wall, they are painting an entire building. You won’t be able to miss it near the urban loop, south of the sound barrier walls at 4711 Lawndale Drive. Just make sure you’re not texting as you drive by.
A few ratchets up in risk from Screen Time is No Filter– a street piece that won’t actually be on the street. Instead, it will be inside Pig Pounder Brewery because of its charged subject matter.
The artwork is by Greek artist, Insane51, who uses a 3D technique he calls “Double Exposure.” Looking through a red lens, you see one image; looking through a blue lens you see yet another image. Viewing the art without any lenses, you see the whole picture.
While this technique requires an “insane” level of precision, the real power is in the multiple mind-bending perspectives the work gives viewers. This is exactly what Kotis was looking for to make his concept of No Filtercome to life. And come to life it does. No Filter is not only visual, it’s visceral.
In addition to Insane’s interpretation and execution, the subjects — a four-legged animal and a world-famous celebrity — make it so.
Why would Kotis choose this concept and these subjects?
“It’s to expose our own individual filters that lead to the larger issue of polarization in the United States,” he said. “We have become isolated by filters in this country. There needs to be more conversation and even self-deprecating humor. And it’s important to acknowledge when someone has acted like a [four-legged animal] – even if it pops your filter bubble.”
This may seem out-of-character coming from Kotis, who is generally conservative. But because he doesn’t bend to peer pressure nor follow the straight party line (he sees strengths and weaknesses across the board), the word “maverick” also fits him.
But isn’t art supposed to pull us out of our comfort zones? Hoffman thinks so. “Good art makes people react strongly; it removes ambivalence. Art like No Filtermay even help viewers decipher their real feelings about a subject matter.”
Still, No Filter may rile the community. Kotis is okay with that even if that includes a few of his friends. “I hope to open a dialogue and create civil discourse. I think No Filteris the right catalyst.”
It could also be a good catalyst for beefing up business at Pig Pounder, and that’s okay with Kotis, too. Increased tourism traffic and returns mean he can keep employing people and continue to bring exceptional street art to Greensboro. In fact, he hopes these topical street art pieces cast Greensboro into the international spotlight as a champion of street art.
Hoffmann shares a similar sentiment. “Street art is another reason to come to Greensboro; it helps make us a ‘destination’ city.”
Experience No Filter at the Pig Pounder Pavillion, 1107 Grecade Street in Greensboro during business hours. Red and blue gels will be stationed in the viewing space so you won’t need your own 3D glasses. And remember, you can immerse yourself in Screen Time anytime at 4711 Lawdale Drive.
Explore Kotis’ breadth of commissioned street art by checking his Instagram feed (@MartyKotis) or see the murals in person at these addresses.
1111 Grecade St, 4711 Lawndale Dr, 1107 Grecade St, 1201 Battleground Ave, 1305 Battleground Ave, 2505 Battleground Ave, 1410 Westover Terr, 1424 Westover Terr, 1205 W Bessemer Ave, 301 E Washington St, 302 W Gate City Blvd, 516 Federal Place, 2505 Battleground Ave, 699 E Cone Blvd, 124 N Davie St, and find others tucked away throughout the city.