It’s a busy lunchtime on Foundy Street, and with bellies full of BBQ, tourists are distracted by the paintings that cover the outside walls through the Foundation block of warehouses. Moving steadily along with mouths open, the sightseers drift past a man who’s been standing on a scaffold under the summer heat for about an hour. He goes unnoticed by the throngs of people, but doesn’t seem to mind — his day is just starting. He puts on his respirator, takes out his cans of paint, and goes to work.
Anyone inspired by the street art that’s now become a staple of the River Arts District probably has Ian Wilkinson to thank for it. A muralist for more than 25 years, Wilkinson is a self-proclaimed “steward” of the Foundation Walls project and the producer of Burners and BBQ, an event created by artists Gus Cutty and William “Topper” Wolkoff that brings both seasoned and fledgling street artists to the River Arts District and gives them a blank canvas for their work.
Wilkinson moved to Asheville because he saw a great potential in the community. Though never an illegal graffiti artist himself, “I was drawn to Asheville’s youthful art scene,” he says. “There was a spirited growth here, and the more I was drawn in, the more I realized there was actually a strong graffiti community that I had never found before. I wanted to expand a camaraderie like that to all the street artists.”
He contracted with the City of Asheville to remove random graffiti and replace the work there with what he calls “high-quality graffiti productions involving the best writers around.” The way he sees it, he became “a release valve” easing the tension between building owners and the city’s newly formed graffiti-compliance team, including finessing logistics to favor the needs of local property owners over corporately owned locations. This helped rescue the Foundation area, a block of derelict warehouses now owned by Brent Starck, Eddie Dewey, and Chris Eller, who support the ongoing street-art endeavor while they convert indoor space to high-end galleries. (Turn to page 60 to read Sometimes it Takes a Village to Raise a Street Artist.)
“We aren’t the first city to do something like this — and a lot of people don’t realize that we have some nationally known graffiti writers [in] Asheville,” says Wilkinson, naming “Trek6, Fowl, Wins, Ishmael, and Gus [Cutty]” as examples. (At press time, Cutty, also a muralist, had just finished painting an enthusiastically received Dolly Parton portrait on the Bledsoe Building in West Asheville.)
“A lot of young graff artists want to get noticed,” he goes on. “Some of them aspire to move into muralism. Some don’t.” Foundation Walls, then, “provides an arena for [getting noticed] without the stress of it being illegal — but it is a place where they need to step up their game, because of the high caliber of writers who have made their mark there.” Potential writers have to be approved and follow the project’s “rules of engagement,” he notes. These include not painting over someone’s work if you don’t know them, “and when you do cover them, you have to ‘burn harder’ — do better — and cover [the work] completely,” says Wilkinson. A similar rule prohibits writers from marking in the space above a piece by an artist they’re not familiar with. “It implies a hierarchy,” he explains.
Wilkinson’s own artistic signature is embedded everywhere in Asheville’s municipal landscape. Among other works, he painted the chess-players portion of the Lexington/Merrimon Avenue bridge, the “Good Vibes” silo in the River Arts District, the front entrance of Hall Fletcher Elementary School in West Asheville, and the new mural at Urban Orchard Cider Co.’s South Slope location. Now he hopes to spread the advocation of murals ever further throughout Asheville — bringing both seasoned artists and newcomers to the challenge.
His next project, a community mural for the cancer center at Mission Hospital, welcomes artists, patients, doctors, and the general community. “We want to spread the street-art footprint — not redo it,” Wilkinson explains. “Graffiti isn’t necessarily intended to be accessible to everyone, like street art and murals, but there’s a great deal of craft and ingenuity that can be appreciated by any viewer.”
Ian Wilkinson, Asheville, ianthepainter.com. To donate to the Cancer Center Mural at mission hospital, visit gofundme.com/cancer-fighting-mural-consortium. To inquire about permission to paint at Foundation Walls, contact the group by that name on Facebook.