Fat City’s identity: Two-year street art initiative declared complete in Metairie

Mural Press Conference Warren, Chris & Aaron

Schools of fish circle within two partially transparent sharks as they swim near a sea turtle and other marine creatures.

The surreal scene isn’t part of a strange dream. Rather, it is painted on a rear exterior wall of the Eureka Square shopping center on North Arnoult Road — the last of 10 murals produced during a two-year push to use street art to attract more customers to businesses in Metairie’s Fat City district.

Various officials on Tuesday gathered around the aquatic mural, Chris Pavlik’s “Everyone’s in the Belly of Some Beast,” to mark the completion of the bulk of the art initiative, which they said has given Fat City a unique character many suburban areas lack.

“It’s hard to find a cluster of murals anywhere in this country that is as distinctive and large as this,” said Nick Stillman, president and chief executive officer of the Arts Council of New Orleans, which managed the so-called Fat City Mural Project. “I think we were able to create a portfolio that provides a distinctive identity for this neighborhood.”

The murals project began in earnest during 2014, when a group that evolved into the Metairie Business Development District (via the Jefferson Chamber Foundation) secured $150,000 in tourism funds under the control of Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who at the time represented the district that includes Fat City.

The business group then joined forces with the Arts Council to recruit muralists, find property owners who were willing to offer their walls to the artists and devise plans to maintain the finished paintings for several years.

A number of obstacles soon arose. First, there were fewer building owners willing to make their blank walls available for art than the MBDD initially expected, said its president, Warren Surcouf III.

Then came the task of finding artists who were able to meet the challenge of painting outdoor murals in southeastern Louisiana, with its fitful blend of heat, humidity and turbulent storms for long stretches of the year, Stillman said.

Nonetheless, organizers found nine artists to paint 10 murals in Fat City.

Aside from Eureka Square, the artwork now graces walls of buildings housing Akira Sushi Hibachi and David Art Center on North Arnoult Road, Laurel Outdoor and Southern Aesthetics on Hessmer Avenue, Drago’s Empire Room on 18th Street, Rocky’s Diner on Edenborn Avenue, Breaux Mart on Severn Avenue, Lakeside Camera Photoworks on 21st Street and the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission on 12th Street.

The murals don’t share a common theme, and the techniques used to paint them ran the gamut: traditional brushwork, stencils, spray cans or some combination thereof.

Yet all of the murals’ imagery is evocative, making it difficult for even the most distracted Fat City visitors to miss it, officials said.

They said they are confident the murals already have encouraged people to spend more time around the retailers and restaurants in a neighborhood that officials hope will become a main commercial center for Jefferson Parish’s east bank.

Lee-Sheng on Tuesday singled out Kyle Bravo’s mural at Southern Aesthetics, “Legs in the Air,” which depicts two enormous, upside-down pairs of fancy shoes belonging to a man and a woman dressed up for a night out.

She said it illustrates the potential for Fat City, which was long seen as a seedy entertainment district akin to Bourbon Street but which has undergone a transformation in recent years, as strict new parish regulations have helped usher in higher-end shops and establishments.

“We wanted to show the new energy in that neighborhood,” said Lee-Sheng, who became an at-large Parish Council representative this year. “And I think (“Legs in the Air”) does.”

Officials said they spent about $100,000 of the money allocated for the murals on producing them. The balance will be available to preserve the murals and potentially to pursue other art projects for Fat City, Surcouf said.

Learn more about this phase of the mural project completion at The Advocate’s article by Ramon Antonio Vargas dated August 23, 2016.