Learn from a Leader: How to get permissions and engage your community for a big public mural

At ioby, we are lucky to be surrounded by experts from across the country. Our ioby Leaders  can do some amazing things;  They can  build bat houses, make beeswax candles, teach  kids how to tell stories through dance!  And best of all, they’re not stingy with their knowledge.  That’s why we like to  feature some of our favorite  Leaders in our Learn from a Leader series. We hope you enjoy!

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This week we hear from  Karen B. Golightly, a graffiti photographer and one of the three main organizers of Paint Memphis. Her photos and articles on graffiti and public art have been published nationally and internationally in literary and art journals, such as Triggerfish Critical Review and Number magazine.  Paint Memphis sponsors a one-day annual paint festival to create public art in unusual places. In 2015, they created Memphis’s largest collaborative mural, which was also its first city-sanctioned wall for public art.

  1. Get permission from the City—with some friends. This might be the hardest part! Memphis spent so many years trying to cover up graffiti that officials had a hard time understanding why they should now condone it; it literally took us years to reach agreement. We finally got there by doing a presentation to the Office of Engineering and Public Works showing how beautiful the public murals in St. Louis are, and how this is all about community—it’s not a threat! We also partnered with a local environmental nonprofit that wanted to beautify the floodwalls lining their recreational trails. It’s better not to go into this looking like one crazy person—get some backing!
  1. Figure out your budget. If you’re not familiar with calculating mural costs, ask someone who is. The other Paint Memphis organizers had a better idea than I about how much time and paint (both spray and bucket) we would need. We approached Home Depot, and they donated a lot of primer, paint, and volunteer labor (we shouted them out in our press release); paint brands Glidden and Behr and a local contractor also made donations. Our muralists also chipped in themselves by buying some of their own paint; about half of what we needed total. Remember that the bigger the wall, the more expensive it will be!
  1. Clean and prime. After appealing to the chief of our fire department for months, he understood that pressure washing was an essential part of the mural-making process, and agreed to help us. Once it was clean, Home Depot employees volunteered their own time to prime the wall.
  1. Get volunteers! We sent one press release, and had our ioby campaign and a website, but most of our buzz stemmed from the nature of the project: graffiti is cool! A lot of people spread the word through their own social networks and really showed up to help with prep and cleanup, press, professional photography—everything! We also had organizations reach out to see what they could do; one volunteered to clean along the wall after the mural’s completion.
  1. Choose your painters and prep for the day. We gave local and regional artists whose work was really good first dibs on painting, but artists from as far away as South Korea eventually heard about it and got involved. We organized the artists along the wall to alternate between solo muralists and crews; many developed their pieces to fit together, so we planned for them to work side by side. A local restaurant donated a barbeque lunch, and another sponsor donated water. All 70 artists were so grateful to come out and share their work.

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[Photo by Daryl Andrews. Lots more great ones on Paint Memphis’ Facebook page]



If you’re in a hot climate, don’t do this in the middle of the summer! After you get permission from the City, six months should be enough time to organize, provided you’re working with a committed team.



We raised $2,500 and got a separate $500 donation, which was enough to buy half the spray paint; we needed an additional $2,000 for bucket paint and priming. So the materials total was about $8,000—but that was for a floodwall a third of a mile long and seven feet tall! We wanted it this size to make an eye-catching statement and a real community movement for Memphis, but you don’t have to start so big.



In addition to all the usual paint and priming supplies—brushes, rollers, buckets, tarps, etc.—don’t forget to have tons of water and snacks on hand for everyone!

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[Photo by Frank Chin. Lots more great ones on Paint Memphis’ Facebook page]


Additional resources:

Paint Louis gave us tons of great advice

Living Walls—a different approach in Atlanta

– Local arts agencies (like our UrbanArt Commission) are usually more than willing to help with securing funding and lending expertise

– Get a local nonprofit—one involved in the arts, environment, or something else related—to lend your cause validity and help make inroads to local government easier

– If there’s a person in charge of public art in your city’s administration, reach out to them (of course)!

2 thoughts on “Learn from a Leader: How to get permissions and engage your community for a big public mural

  1. I’m a professional photographer.. I liked the place so much, that I convinced a local designer to allow me to do a photoshoot of models in her new swimsuit line at the location.. a local Corvette Club even provided some cars for use as props.. Whole shoot went of well.. we just had to wait for the weather to warm up so we could shoot.

  2. Wonderful story. Helped me: 1. Hang in there, I might still make mine come true. 2. I am nit the only one who is trying to organize the project to take off for years. 3. Committed volunteers and core group important to find. 4. Big budget is ok, because the idea is big! IOBY, wait for me! I am still trying! machiko

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