Community amongst excess in Wynwood

Inside of Wynwood Walls. Photo by Katie Wheeler.
Inside of Wynwood Walls. Photo by Katie Wheeler.

“Dude, those drips look so sick!”

That’s what I hear on my way to 2nd Ave in Wynwood. It is Saturday December 6th around 9pm, and this is the last big night during Art Basel. A group of guys are tagging this building and praising each other’s tags based on the quality of the drips. I am hungry, tired, and annoyed because it took an hour to get to Wynwood and another hour to park. Not to worry though, soon I’ll reach my destination: 2nd Ave with 23rd St, the heart of Wynwood. Soon at least one of my big problems, my hunger, would be taken care of by one of the 30+ food trucks parked nearby. I just had to navigate through a sea of people, cars, paint cans, beer cans, art tents, music speakers, police in horseback, and of course more people.

Oh dear Wynwood, you have once again left me feeling sad, hopeless, and discouraged. What is it that you’re doing? How did you let yourself get so bad?

Let’s back up to a history of my brief relationship with Wynwood, the neighborhood in Miami where street artists, graffiti writers, and muralists flock every December for their version of Art Basel Miami Beach. I found out about the Wynwood district through Primary Flight back in 2008. At the time, Primary Flight was the largest grassroots mural festival in the world, and they were centered in Wynwood. It was such a new thing, especially for the States, which was not yet blossoming with the many street art festivals we see today. This was the largest concentration of graffiti writers and street artists in the world, and they were working with people from the neighborhood to produce great art. In recent years, Goldman Properties has brought street art on steroids to the same neighborhood in the form of Wynwood Walls, almost completely overshadowing Primary Flight.

I first experienced Wynwood firsthand in 2010. I was so impressed! There was so much art everywhere. It was completely insane! There were warehouse parties, a sense of artists running the show, and good vibes. The whole thing still felt at least a bit underground, grimy, and honest. Yes, Wynwood Walls was there in 2010, but it was a groomed park, and not as interesting as the madness just outside its gates.

In 2011, I came back to Miami with some artists. With the help of the guys from Primary Flight, we organized the first Living Walls murals in Wynwood. I’m not going to lie. It as a fun and exciting time, but… something was already different. I was seeing more expensive restaurants and coffee shops popping up. There were more galleries and fewer residents from the neighborhood. I was not happy to see how quickly the neighborhood was gentrifying.

In 2012, I tried to give Wynwood another shot, but the money coming in to the neighborhood was too obviously damaging. I decided to never come back to Wynwood, but as they say…never say never. I took a year off from Basel and Wynwood, only to return once again this year.

This past August, Living Walls had hosted Camila Álvarez, Producer and Director of the documentary Right to Wynwood, during our annual conference in Atlanta. The film documents the fast gentrification process her neighborhood was going through. I had seen the documentary. I knew what to expect. I thought I was prepared.

This year, I was going to Wynwood to have fun. I would see old friends and meet new ones. Wynwood during Art Basel is, after all, the biggest gathering of artists all year. I told myself to enjoy the vacation, see some art, and not let the sad truth of the gentrified neighborhood bring me down.

But I did not succeed. To my disappointment, the circus that is Wynwood outdid itself once again, and the spectacle was unavoidable. So much traffic, so many people, so much money… just so much of everything. And everything is loud. It fills you with the most overwhelming feeling.

There was so much art around me, but once I got there, I didn’t want to see any of it. Why see the art, when everything feels like a live painting session? How could I really appreciate the art when nothing had an actual meaning?

In another neighborhood not far away, a protest for the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents was taking place, but no one seemed to care. The silence was confusing and obvious. You, dear artists, the ones that I admire and follow on Instagram, I saw you in protests in NYC not long ago. Why weren’t you using the massive audience in Wynwood to talk about issues that I know are important to you? The silence left me brokenhearted…

This isn’t a rant against the artists, the visitors, the gallerists, or the property developers. I’m talking about the whole thing. Wynwood is a fast-growing monster where no one person or group can be blamed for being sucked in and that no one can stop. More residents get pushed out, more artists from all over the world fly in for a weekend to promote their work, more galleries move in, more DJs play on the streets, more booze is being served, etc… More, bigger, louder… The only adjective that really describes Wynwood today is excess.

My head was hurting by day 2. I already wanted to go back home to Atlanta.

But hold on, not everything sucked! Just a few blocks away from the big party in Wynwood, a middle school is changing the game. The Raw Project worked with the Jose de Diego Middle School to paint murals on the school. Some of the same artists who usually paint in Wynwood for publicity were painting with a purpose. The grassroots project worked together with non-profits, organizations, corporate partners, businesses, city agencies, artists, musicians, and the Jose de Diego staff and administration to bring color and inspiration to the walls of the school and launch a long-term fundraising campaign during the week of Art Basel to support the creation of an arts and music magnet program at JDD.

"Life" by Axel Void on JJD. The artist comments, "The school is located in the neighborhood of Wynwood, a gentrified area where street art and the fashion industry have built a frivolous trend with the reputation of having the best murals in the world, but has rather become a circus in the pursuit of fame. " Photo by Axel Void.
“Life” by Axel Void on JDD. The artist comments, “The school is located in the neighborhood of Wynwood, a gentrified area where street art and the fashion industry have built a frivolous trend with the reputation of having the best murals in the world, but has rather become a circus in the pursuit of fame.” Photo by Axel Void.

Finally, public art is having a long-lasting positive impact in the district! This new project is a step towards finding a balance between the street art festival format and community engagement. Maybe I was wrong about Wynwood. Maybe it’s not all bad, and the neighborhood’s growing pains are inspiring others to create meaningful change. Maybe next December, we’ll see more artists painting in schools.

Oh man, I wish that is the case. In the meantime, I can only hope and look forward to the next Wynwood circus. Just to be on the safe side though, I think next year I’ll experience Wynwood from the safety of my own home, through the wonderful eyes and ears of the internet.

Till then Miami,



Photos by Katie Wheeler and Axel Void