Those who cherish the bohemian grit of Faubourg Marigny were aghast on Wednesday, when a landmark that had once been covered with a tangle of murals and graffiti tags was mostly covered in a coat of white paint.
The long-closed Frankie & Johnnie furniture store, at 2600 St. Claude Ave., at Franklin Avenue, suddenly shone like an iceberg in the setting sun. The aerosol artworks by Crude Things, Skela, J McKay and other street painters were blotted out.
The reason for the erasure was simple, said real estate agent Zella V. May, who represents the owners. The building is up for sale, and prospective buyers haven’t found the street art especially charming.
On the front of the structure and along the Franklin Avenue side, May said, the paintings were a random jumble, not a “uniform piece of art.”
Painted with permission
Back in 2018, four or five murals were painted on the building with permission of the property owner at the time, said Neal Morris, founder of the NOLA Mural Project. Morris became a street art activist in 2019, when he began uniting painters with property owners who were willing to permit murals on their buildings. The NOLA Mural Project eventually placed scores of outdoor paintings across New Orleans.
Morris is philosophical about the elimination of the artwork on the Frankie & Johnnie building. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the game,” he said. “We were lucky to have the murals for as long as we did.”
Morris said he can’t recall exactly who gave the NOLA Mural Project permission to use the old furniture store as a canvas, but he’s happy to have had the opportunity and doesn’t begrudge the property owner the right to repaint.
“Just because we lose them [the murals], doesn’t mean somebody’s the bad guy,” he said.
After they were painted, the authorized murals were soon swarmed with other renegade tags and graffiti renderings. Such is the street art scene.
In 2019, a few months after the NOLA Mural Project artworks appeared on the 2600 St. Claude property, it was sold by the Trapani Offspring Beneficiaries for almost $1.3 million to MACO Properties, a Missouri-based developer that specializes in affordable housing, according to the Orleans Parish assessor’s office.
Some neighbors complain that the long-unused building has become a magnet for squatters and a den of drug use. Artist Skylar Fein, who lives nearby, said he once heard gunshots emanating from the building. And another time a cry of rape. The police, he said, once discovered a body in the derelict cavern.
That impression of chaos among neighbors is part of why the building was whitewashed, May said. The owner has recently spent thousands of dollars on a new fence along one side of the property, a new garage door and other security features, while dropping the asking price by $300,000, she said. During Hurricane Ida in 2021, a portion of the wall at the rear of the building collapsed, but it was swiftly repaired.
Not all of the Frankie & Johnnie murals were blotted out Wednesday. On the downriver side of the building, May said, artist Henry Lipkis’s 500-foot mural depicting a second-line parade was left untouched because it is “in good taste,” and “provides a pleasant view.” That work dates from 2016.
None of the muralists whose works were covered responded to a request for comment. Nor has MACO Properties.
Meanwhile, in what seems to be a mere coincidence, the old Beauty Plus building, a half mile up St. Claude at 1101 Elysian Fields Ave., was also painted white in recent days. Like the former Frankie & Johnnie store, Beauty Plus was entirely blanketed with street art murals, by Fat Kids from Outer Space, Ceaux, Mr. Balloon Hands, and many others.
After two decades on St. Claude, the management of the beauty supply retailer announced in 2019 that rising rents would cause the business to close.
According to assessor’s office records, the property is owned by Vu&Tran LLC.
Based on a perusal of building permits, when the $163,000 renovation is complete, the old Beauty Plus will have been transformed into a food court called the Elysian Market, which might include seven restaurant stalls, a central sushi bar and beer island.
As in the case of Frankie & Johnnie, the disappearance of the Beauty Plus caused a ripple of consternation among those who fear the St. Claude corridor is becoming too genteel.
Tyler Van Dyke, whose business NOLA Art Walk provides tours of the outdoor artworks in downtown New Orleans, said he’s been told the murals on the Beauty Plus building had been done with the blessing of the business. Because it was a beauty product supply store, many of the pieces on the St. Claude side were meant to depict “strong images of women.”
Van Dyke said he regrets the loss of the artworks in both locations on St. Claude. Artist J McKay’s mural of a young Black man’s face with sunflowers, on the Frankie & Johnnie location, was the artwork that sparked his career, Van Dyke said. Then suddenly, it was gone.
If there’s a silver lining, Van Dyke said, it’s that property owners could learn to better communicate with artists when changes are coming.
“For better or worse,” Van Dyke said, “it’s an opportunity to educate and discuss the issue.”
Naturally, by Friday, the now-white former Beauty Plus building had already been tagged with aerosol scribbles.
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