Feature Story

Artists transform a neighborhood

into a sprawling outdoor gallery.


She smells the paint and dried sweat before she sees him. When the lanky skater scrapes up behind her, Lakwena Maciver is studying the surface of a wall as if it were a single brick magnified in a jeweler’s loupe.

“Congratulations,” the skate kid sneers from under the safety of a cap pulled low. “Everyone loved that wall, and you’re lucky to be painting it.”

His voice rattles like the pea in an aerosol can. He clears his throat, awaiting a response.

“Thank you,” Maciver says. As soon as the skater hears her British accent, he sighs and pushes off on his board.

Maciver — jet-lagged, the sides of her head shaved, her smile composing half her body weight — stands in front of a wall several train cars long, a block from the Wynwood Arts District’s main drag. The wall was buffed bright white before she arrived in Miami the night before, and now she has only two weeks before Art Basel Miami Beach opens to create a new mural where the patterned signature of another artist had once been. When she’s done, a crackling black-and-white border will contain a rainbow burst. Over it will be gold block letters, each considerably taller than Maciver herself, reading, “I remember paradise.”

The artist absently grabs a clump of her hair. “We all have this sense that there is something wrong with the world but that once there was something perfect. I’ve carried that from gray London to Miami, which is seen by a lot of people as paradise.”

This enormous work of art will barely register across the causeway in Miami Beach, where a single Gerhard Richter piece goes for $3 million and a Jeff Koons for $8 million — an alternate reality in which Picasso, Warhol, and Haring seemingly still make new work and more than $3 billion worth of art is for sale in the windowless fluorescence of the main fair.

Every December, hundreds of artists converge on Wynwood in the weeks before Art Basel’s satellite fairs open. With spray paint, a few bucks from building owners, and determination to display their brilliance, they layer over last year’s work and transform Miami’s former garment district once again. These murals have taken a neighborhood that atrophied 50 years ago when a railroad strike cut off its warehouses, and turned it into a place where swarming tourists photograph walls freshly painted by masters and neophytes alike.

The main fair’s name, Art Basel, has grown to encompass anything related to it in the city, not unlike brand names Kleenex, Dumpster, and Styrofoam (or, as they are known for this one week, “mixed media”). But the paint on the walls in Wynwood has preserved a separate identity, one that even as it is increasingly incorporated into the established art world, keeps its ties to the outsider graffiti culture.

After the December weekend when 75,000 collectors and art fans depart and the tents come down, this new batch of murals remains. So does the tension between the local artists and those who fly in from Los Angeles or Berlin for a few days to leave an indelible mark on a city that still smells of their paint when they leave.



Oscar “Trek6” Montes (above) and Chor Boogie restored their Everlasting Bass boombox mural this year. It is a reinvention of Argentine artist Sonni’s 2010 original (below).

Chor Boogie worked on restoration of the boombox.

Photo by Stian Roenning

Photo by Kate Maier


Oscar Montes is about as close to an elder statesman as there is in the Miami graffiti world — “elder” meaning he has finally hit his 40s. Having painted Miami since 1989, he moves a little more stiffly now and fills out his T-shirts a bit more. He’s an éminence grise whose unkempt beard has only just begun to gray — though juggling his newborn son and spray cans might finish the job. Under the name “Trek6,” he’s working on his fourth mural in a ten-day stretch and still has two more to go before the fairs open in four days.

“When we were kids, you would just come to Wynwood to get tags or bomb,” he says. “You didn’t come here to fuck around. You would bomb on a mission. You got in; you got out.”

That Wynwood was “what you see in every place that’s oppressed: drug use out in the open, stealing metal, breaking in. It was just really rough.”

The neighborhood was blighted for decades before 2002’s first installment of Art Basel Miami Beach. It made a rare jaunt into awareness outside Miami in 1988 when a crack dealer was beaten to death in his Wynwood apartment by six police officers who were later acquitted of wrongdoing. The streets were ravaged by riots — partly by local Puerto Ricans who complained about years of abuse in the neighborhood — and three buildings were burned down.

Montes didn’t live in Wynwood then but, as a painter and a Puerto Rican, considered himself part of the neighborhood. “I remember [the cops] beating a dude senseless,” he says. “I remember being bothered for my community. I couldn’t understand trashing your neighborhood. It’s the mom-and-pop store that gets hit.”

Wincing as he sits down on the sidewalk opposite the wall he’s working on, he leans his back against the window of a design shop selling chrome piggy banks for $250. He’s been steadily breathing in paint fumes for more than half his life, but he waves a calloused hand at a nearby gallery as if it has fouled the air.

“Some of these galleries, I know they’re struggling,” Montes says. “And the fairs can be just a big-ass rave. They do drive interest into the neighborhood, and I wouldn’t have as much of a problem if there was more support for the community that’s here all year long.”

 Montes is something of a bearded Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree. A fractured toe and a pinched nerve in his back have slowed his progress. He gazes toward the 700 cans of paint and ponders the work he has left. “I just want to get these walls done and get an x-ray and be myself again.” he says.

For some locals, there is a growing sense that in the handful of years since Wynwood’s rejuvenation began in earnest, there is no longer a place for the people like Montes who made it what it is. Another of the most important forces behind the artistic renaissance in Wynwood was Primary Flight, a duo comprising Miami artists Darin “Books IIII” Bischof and Michael “Typoe” Gran.

Though he began as a illegal graffiti artist, there’s something almost professorial about Bischof, broad-shouldered but bearded and in thin-rimmed glasses. He wears sport coats to work at his downtown space, Primary, which he runs with Gran.

In 2007, Primary Flight took on the task of not only cataloguing what was on walls throughout Wynwood but also curating the murals and finding money to invite artists in during the neighborhood’s early days of reinvention. One of the most recognized of their projects is a single-story building facing I-95, painted to look like a giant boombox. It was created by the Argentine artist Sonni in 2010 in his signature cartoon-like style after Bischof and Gran selected his proposal for the building.

The boombox is Miami,” Montes says. “It’s a sign that you’re entering South Florida, at least for my generation. It’s a way to communicate with Miami, not just Wynwood. You’re speaking to the whole damn city.”

Within a year, the mural was covered by advertisements and dashed-off graffiti. Montes wanted to reclaim the boombox, but he knew neither Sonni nor Primary Flight. He was acquainted with Chor Boogie, a West Coast painter he had met in Wynwood during Art Basel. Chor Boogie is a muscular recovering addict who has sold single works for more than a half-million dollars.

Montes says of Chor Boogie: “His craft is very pure. He doesn’t use any fancy tools. It’s just straight ‘What can I do with the can?’ And I needed someone who was a workhorse like me.”

Chor Boogie readily agreed to help Montes reclaim the building. “Yeah, we’ve got mad love for that [boombox],” Chor Boogie says. “I’ve got mad love for Trek too.”

The pair funded the job by selling Montes’ canvases through Instagram. Montes then “rented a lift for a week and bought $2,000 in paint,” he says. “And I’m there every single month for the last two years, calling the city to let them know a light is broken. Weeding. People write on it; I clean it up. If it chips, I fix it.


Montes is being paid several thousand dollars for each of the other murals he’s doing for Basel week, but he and Chor Boogie are funding this latest touch-up job. For the “boombox remix,” they have added 3-D sculptural elements: buttons, a handle, an antenna. A high school friend of Montes’, an elevator repairman, fabricated the parts. “We knew we didn’t want to change it,” Montes says. “We thought this was about the community.”

Montes estimates he paints “50-something murals a year, plus 30 or 40 canvasses.” He’ll pull mid- to high four figures for a mural, but he still isn’t seeing support from the gallery community. “Very few of us locals get the good walls and the good shows,” he says. “Chances are that if you’re in Wynwood, you’re not looking at a local’s work.”

Montes lifts his palm toward a trio of tourists photographing his in-progress wall with their smartphones. From where he sits, he can see all three screens, which catch the same angle.

“I don’t care about all these people,” he says. “For me, it’s about the art. My intentions have nothing to do with driving up the real-estate factor or driving up the cool-guy factor.”

He sucks in through his teeth. The pinched nerve. Then he pulls himself upright so he can get back to painting. “It’s weird,” he says. “My boy is only 8 weeks old, so he’s still fresh out of the box. But when he gets old enough, how do I express what I did, what I do? I come from the illegal world originally, so when he sees that all the illegal is as real as the legal, what do I tell him about why I can do it but a kid like him can’t?”


Four decades ago, Tony Goldman revitalized New York’s SoHo neighborhood. In the ’80s, he did the same with South Beach. In the ’90s, it was Center City in Philadelphia. In 2004, Goldman bought his first building in Wynwood, and by 2008 he owned nearly two dozen properties in the neighborhood. Within a year, Goldman’s son, Joey, opened an eponymous restaurant, and nearby was a Goldman-sponsored and Jeffrey Deitch-cocurated enclosed courtyard called Wynwood Walls. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, Wynwood Walls was commissioned, spotlighted, and protected by security guards.

“A lot of people use the word ‘visionary’ loosely, but there are very few guys like Tony Goldman,” says gallery owner Gregg Shienbaum. “This was his neighborhood. He stopped and talked to everybody.”

Shienbaum opened his place on the neighborhood’s southern edge in 2011. Though he sells Warhols and Lichtensteins, his specialty is blue-chip street artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy. “When I signed the lease to come in here, I saw Tony eating lunch. He called me over as I walked in and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ ”

Primary Flight and Tony Goldman were transforming Wynwood for their own reasons — Primary Flight as a pair of idealists’ expression of artistic purity, and Goldman as a way to enrich both a culture and his real-estate holdings. “I think Tony made it a point to bring the right artists in,” Shienbaum says. “When the walls are oversaturated, it’s too much for the eye... He saw this place as an outdoor museum.”

Danny Fila was just out of art school when he returned to Miami and this new Wynwood a decade ago. As a teen, he had been a member of Beyond Control, a wildly ambitious graffiti crew that also included the still-active Atomik and Daniel Arsham, who has work on display at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.


Fila painted under the name “Krave.” Though he now shaves his head clean and wraps T-shirts around it like a bedouin for protection from the sun, there’s something eternally youthful about Fila. He seems as ready today to fling himself over a barbed-wire fence as he was decades ago.

“What we had was completely authentic: an indigenous art movement, born in dilapidated properties of a city that had gone to shit,” he says. “Now there’s so much of an onslaught of out-of-town art. Even the local guys... look like they’re from L.A. even though they’re not.”

Without the internet or the ability to travel widely, the only outside graffiti Fila and his friends saw was on the sides of trains from up North or in visitors’ sketchbooks or the occasional magazine. “When I would go out bombing with Atomik,” Fila says, “we felt like we were inventing this while we were doing it.”

Even the bright, primary colors Fila and his friends used, which have become part of the Miami style, were dictated by the limited paint brands available at the hardware store.

Often, Miami graffiti writers paint a double line on the edges of their pieces, something that came out of having extra time to paint without police interference in the forgotten expanses of ’90s Wynwood. “I still push that same wild style in some of my movements,” Fila says. “I think my hand styles are authentic to Miami. I’ve scaled back on some of the colors.”

Many graf writers keep what they call their bibles, black hardbound books in which they sketch ideas. These become not only self-portraiture but also, with the addition of other writers’ work pasted in, documentation of moments in time. Fila keeps his 1996 book in his Little Havana studio and consults it at least once a month. “I invested every moment in this,” he says while paging through it. “I rolled my joints in this. There was no ‘Will this sell?’ ”


He stops on an intricate tag and smiles as if looking at a photo album. “There’s Bhakti Baxter,” he says of a high school friend who has also become a studio artist. “All these people I interacted with. My day-to-day life. Drawing on the bus. They’re so innocent, but they were pure expression.”

He pauses again, a page corner curled up as he is about to turn it, on what is obviously a drawing of himself. A swirl of unkempt hair, a teenaged body hunched in agony. “This book, this was right before I started dating girls,” he says. “After that, the books started filling up more slowly. Then I was like, eh, the book is number two. But here, I’m totally naked on paper.”

Though Fila has an art school education, the street is still his inspiration. Shienbaum understands the appeal to both artists and their audiences. “It’s beautiful to see art on the side of a building, on such a large scale,” Shienbaum says. “When you see a painting on the white wall of a gallery, you could be anywhere. But when you’re walking around and you have the whole environment — the grass, the chainlink fence, and cars whizzing by you — that’s something else altogether.”

That “something else altogether” is what Fila is chasing this Basel season. Now he has a wife, liability insurance, and paint costs that reach into the thousands per project.

Before the fairs open, Fila must finish four murals. They push the limits of what is commonly thought of as a street art mural, both in technique and content.

Fila shows up to some walls before dawn so he can use a video projector to lay out his designs. He says he treated his wall at Wynwood Central “like a sketchbook, with lots of different layers.” He used several types of paint, hand-drawn and -painted elements, and embedded small objects in the paint. “It will change what you see based on how close you are to the wall,” he says.

His exterior mural for Wynwood Brewing Company depicts something like a living room. For a several-thousand-dollar commission, Fila produced a portrait of himself sitting in a chair and watching the neighborhood change. He even affixed salvaged picture frames to the walls, “which has a nice contrast to some of the more hard-core graffiti that’s right around there.”

At the pet-grooming shop D.O.G., he paints a utility pole the same yellow as the neighborhood fire hydrants and affixes mock plugs. He wants dogs to feel like they’ve arrived in urinary heaven. The walls feature a trippy version of “the neighborhood the way a dog might see it.” Everything is bottom-heavy, viewed from below. Flowers and curbs unfurl across the landscape while the buildings shrink away. Fila’s own dog is immortalized on the wall too. It’s good to be the girlfriend of a rock star and also to be the dog of a sought-after muralist.

Along a narrow alleyway beside Mitrani Warehouse, Fila paints a knotted, tumbling design without the ability to step back and view his work as he creates it. What begins as rough vines blooms into something more fanciful and amorphous as a person walks down the alley to the lot behind the warehouse. A pop-up beer garden will occupy the space for the duration of the fairs, and Fila wants to transport visitors from the bustle of the street to the suspended calm tucked away.

A few blocks south at his gallery, Shienbaum plans his January show, a massive Shepard Fairey retrospective. But aside from his big-ticket artists, he also represents two local artists, Ahol Sniffs Glue and Clandestine Culture, who came out of Miami’s graffiti scene.

“ ‘Street artist’ is a bad name for them,” Shienbaum says. Like Fila, “they paint in studios, and their paintings sell at auctions and galleries. Their medium — one of them — is the street. If Wynwood were just graffiti, people wouldn’t be flying in from around the world to see it. When people come to Miami now, they go to two places: South Beach and Wynwood.”

“When people come to Miami now, they go to two places: South Beach and Wynwood.”

Photo by Kate Maier

Danny “Krave” Fila (above) and his collaborator Jeremy Nichols (below) paint surreal vines in an alleyway leading to a pop-up beer garden behind Mitrani Warehouse.

Photo by Morgan Coleman

Photo by Kate Maier

Above: Fila knows all the dogs he painted on the side of the D.O.G. pet daycare. Below: Fila works on another mural.

Photo by Kate Maier



There’s no one path to being chosen to create a mural in Wynwood, as is clear from the life of Cassie Williams — Kazilla, as she is better known — who worked on eight walls this Basel season and showed at the Select satellite fair. Raised by a restless single mother, Williams taught herself to sew her own teddy bears as the pair moved around the Southwest. “I went to 16 different schools before I graduated from high school,” she says. “I started cutting my hair when I was 3 and still do.”

She has refined her hairstyling ability since then, going with a choppy, peroxided cut that includes slashes of pinks and blues as her mood changes.

As a teenager, Williams worked as a go-go dancer in a Santa Fe club. She attended college but dropped out after realizing her skills were more advanced than the art classes being offered.

Three years as an “urban nomad” followed. She traded casino chips for meals, hitchhiked and bartered for paint. When she finally settled down in South Florida in her mid-20s, she was making so much art that she had to paint over older works because she didn’t have space for more canvases.

“I recently sold one of my favorites,” she says. “It’s this panda with this girl next to it, shooting rainbows out of her mouth. I see people as colors that make them up.”

Williams says she has synesthesia, a condition that causes her to experience sounds and smells as colors. She looks down and wiggles her fingers. “Like, I know I’m a white girl, but I see myself as layers of purple, yellow, and orange. Everything is kind of twinkly in my life. Smells and sounds make colors. When I did live art, I’d feel vibrations around me and paint them. But the mural work is something special — it’s not just a painting people can move around. It’s going to stay there.”

Her biggest project of the Basel season is a wall she’s painting with the Few&Far collective, an international crew of more than a dozen female street artists who were selected by the Goldmans as part of a push for more women artists. Maciver, too, joined that initiative.

By the time Williams arrives at the Few&Far artists’ spot on NW 24th Street, hurried and overloaded with buckets of paint in each fist, the other five women are bent over one another’s sketches and detailed plans. They’re pondering how to connect the disparate pieces into a unified wall.

Williams points at a small ledge jutting over a gated doorway. “I want to be up there,” she says. “I want to just paint and be up in my work.”

It’s a more difficult perch than most because she’ll never be able to view the wall from a distance. But Williams plans to paint her most frequent subject: highly stylized women moving in usual ways. So she doesn’t need a model or much room. “I’m just painting myself over and over, with different looks or in past lives,” she says. “They’re outer reflections of inner reflections.”

As the others get to work, gridding out their sections, Williams sits on the ledge and stares at something only she can see. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when she begins to work, she paints a woman sitting on a ledge and gazing into the distance.

“All the girls love how I do patterns in my women’s hair, so I did that all over the piece to connect all of our work. They are such primal patterns that you see in everything,” she says, pointing out other pieces of the design. “The zigzag is every mountain or cloud you see. The florets are the flowers or fingers. Patterns like these are very resonant of what we see around us, so we can connect with it very easily.”

She looks down at her hands again. “The things we can do with these,” she marvels. “I always carry a marker around or a tiny can of spray paint. I’ll bust it out and make all my friends get down, even if they don’t write or do art. You just have to do it, with your hands. Make something, write a haiku on a bathroom wall.”

“I always
carry a
around or
a tiny can of spray paint.
I’ll bust it
out and make all my friends get down,
even if they don’t write
or do art.”

Photo by Morgan Coleman

A part of the completed mural by Cassie “Kazilla” Williams and the Few&Far crew.



On NW Second Avenue, a day before the fairs open, espresso-to-go and skinny jeans snip through exhaust fumes from the traffic crawl. But a few blocks east, bargains on quinceañera dresses can still be found, and there’s a hardware shop that sells spray cans to local artists who have graduated from Home Depot.

The walls over here tend to be less ambitious because the business owners aren’t as interested in paying artists. But that hasn’t stopped some of the hungrier young ones who straddle the art-world hustle and the outlaw-graffiti lifestyle.

“Whatever it is, we’ll be out here, painting all day, man,” says Justin Vallee, who, along with Jeremiah Taylor, makes up a long-haired, scruffy duo called 2square. Dressed like carnival barkers who have formed a posse to go after glitter thieves, they have a personal style that rivals the walls around them when it comes to dizzying displays of color.

They have been working together for close to five years and painting nearly full-time for the past two.

Vallee, who is right-handed, has created a separate artistic identity for himself as someone who paints with his left. Jeremiah sold off all of his possessions to help fund a four-year globe trot that took the pair from Detroit through Europe. They arrived in Miami two years ago for Basel week. Since then, Wynwood has become their base of operations, with side trips to Canada and Venezuela for painting gigs.

They obsessively post poems on their website (“Freshly washed sheets covered with fresh sex./Dark colors never do well in these situations.”) and chronicle their every move on social media, something of a risk for a pair of self-styled outlaws. But the police in Wynwood frequently stop Taylor not to hassle him but to compliment him on his latest walls, even the illegal ones.

“Miami Beach,” Taylor says, “they don’t want this over there.”

Buildings on the eastern fringes of Wynwood are beginning to come down to make room for the new, he says before motioning toward a mural of a dead-eyed woman caught in a hail of roses. She has lifted one of them to her lips and is about to either smell it or bite off its head. “They leveled this out, and I could see this beautiful wall from the street,” Taylor says in the slow Tennessee drawl of his childhood. “And I was like, What a piece. You can see it from North Miami Avenue and a couple side streets when you’re coming down through Wynwood, and I was like, Epic!”

Though 2square has been creating several simple murals for a thrift store and a few other small businesses, this one is clearly Taylor’s prize for this Basel cycle. He had thought about the wall for a long time. “I knew it was illegal and I just wasn’t sure about it,” he says. “But when I came back from Europe and saw that it still wasn’t painted, I thought, I’m just gonna do it.”

So he grabbed a ladder, buffed the wall, and coaxed different textures out of the background with several days of applying dark paints in layers. And now, on the eve of the fairs, with a spray can in each hand, he paints with quick movements that would seem frantic if they weren’t so tight and controlled.

“Piece by piece,” he says, “it comes together.”

It would be easy to call Vallee and Taylor carpetbaggers if their enthusiasm and giddiness over the possibilities of mural painting in Wynwood weren’t so genuine.

“I think the idea behind Basel at first was, you know, more fine art, and then the streets kind of took over,” Vallee says. “There are galleries galore down here, but you’re seeing a lot of movement toward the streets, and people from around the world are coming down here to, like, get together and compete too. It’s a competition, but it’s like friends too, you know?”

Though they may be late arrivals to Wynwood, the 2square guys seem to have captured some version of the spirit that took the neighborhood from a withered wasteland to a model of urban rejuvenation. Before Tony Goldman’s death in late 2012, real-estate developers would fly down from Detroit — where Vallee and Taylor lived before moving to Miami — to solicit the old man’s opinions. And now a version of Goldman’s vision is sprouting in the Motor City.

But in all of his travels, Taylor says of Wynwood, “I have never seen a community that accepts it as much, and I think that is what separates Miami art culture from other places.”

Photos by Morgan Coleman

Jeremiah Taylor (above) and Justin Vallee (below) paint
cooperatively as 2square.

Words: Benjy Caplan

Editor: Chuck Strouse

Online Editor: Jose D. Duran

Copy Editor: Nadine DeMarco

Art Direction & Design: Miche Ratto

Photography: Morgan Coleman, Kate Maier, and Stian Roenning

Videography: Kate Maier

Intro Illustration: Dreps

My Voice Nation Help