Outdoor art gives Greensboro street cred

Over 300 street art installations by over 70 artists have covered spaces in the Gate City

“Greensboro” by Skatinchinchilla located over off S. Eugene Street is one of many Street art from artist from around the world have come to Greensboro to display their work around the city in Greensboro, NC on May 3, 2022. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

GREENSBORO — One cannot travel through Greensboro these days without catching sight of the vivid and larger-than-life street art murals dotting the downtown area. 

Bruce Lee by Raman is located off Westover Terrace and is one of many Street art from artist from around the world have come to Greensboro to display their work around the city in Greensboro, NC on May 3, 2022. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

With over 250 installments to date, there’s a piece of art on a wall in the Gate City for everyone, from futuristic cityscapes to pop culture themes and rich historical murals to larger-than-life figures like Elon Musk and whimsical cartoons.

In 2021, Greensboro made the Men’s Journal top 10 in a list of destinations for outdoor art. The man responsible for launching the city into the street art stratosphere is commercial real estate developer Marty Kotis, who also serves on the UNC Board of Trustees. 

Kotis set up Kotis Street Art, an organization that facilitates the process for artists interested in putting up a piece in the Gate City. Kotis Street Art’s website has a vast amount of information for visitors, including a map to find their walls and profiles of the artists. Additionally, a key role Kotis Street Art plays is identifying available walls artists can legally paint on as well as businesses who want to commission art for their outdoor spaces. 

From start to finish, Kotis himself funds and supports all of the needs for the artists while they are working on their projects, including what he said is a “significant artist fee.” Artists from around the world have been appreciative of his generosity, resulting in a steady stream of word-of-mouth referrals to work with Kotis Street Art.

Support for the artists can include everything from airfare, food and lodging, to prepping the walls to be used as well as the paints and other supplies needed to create the art. Kotis one time even bought a fire engine for use by artists Adnate, from Australia, and Eric Mangen, from Luxembourg, to paint the two-story Guilford Green Community Center. 

Artists’ works are captured through photos and videography of the entire process is shared with the artists, along with Public Relations assistance in order to help promote their work. Gallery space downtown is also on the Kotis Street Art menu. Kotis doesn’t charge commissions, meaning artists retain 100 percent of the proceeds.

Kotis began the journey into street art back in 2010 with smaller-scale projects that included concept art murals on the sides of restaurants he owned. His inspiration came after trips to Urban Spree in Berlin, Upfest in Bristol, and Shoreditch in London.

By 2017, he had bigger ideas brewing and was supporting large-scale wall projects and has worked with over 70 artists from around the world. 

Stan Lee ‘Dream’ by JEKS is one of many at Red Cinemas Street art from artist from around the world have come to Greensboro to display their work around the city in Greensboro, NC on May 3, 2022. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

One of the more prolific and most sought-after artists is Brian Lewis, who uses the artist name “JEKS.” His work can be seen in multiple locations around Greensboro and his work includes everything from realistic portraits to recognizable cartoon figures and pop culture references to classic graffiti letter tagging.

Most of the street art Kotis has helped install usually remains in place for at least a year and some of the installations are as old as five years. 

“The goal is to run out of walls first before painting over existing ones,” Kotis said.

A popular draw is the Red Cinema, where art wraps around the entire building and is readily visible from the street with the high-rise buildings of downtown in the background. Kotis installed special lighting to highlight the work on the Red Cinema building and says he has plans to do the same for other locations.

Kotis also told North State Journal about a by-invitation-only private street art park. The park has around 60 ten by ten panels available for use. There is also a “free wall” which can be used by anyone who asks for access. 

Kotis would like to see Greensboro’s status elevated instead of being a “consolation prize after Charlotte and Raleigh.” 

“Now, I think one of the things about Greensboro is we’re constantly competing with losing young, folks, or even, you know, middle-aged folks to Major markets like a Raleigh or Charlotte, or Durham, or even a Winston,” Kotis said in an interview with North State Journal. “Some of that is just the cool factor. Now they [younger people] want to go where there’s cooler apartment options, cooler scenes for restaurants and bars. There are more artistic things going on appealing to younger crowd trying to turn to maybe urbanize a little bit there.”

“Well, I gotta tell you, I’m really worried that we’re going to see Durham or Winston pass us,” Kotis said in relation to trying to keep college students living in the area after graduation. “You know, when you start looking at population of cities, unless Greensboro grows, its population is going to become relegated to fourth or fifth or sixth-largest city in the state.”

While street art draws visible attention, Greensboro also has a number of what Kotis calls hidden “little gems.” 

One of the gems mentioned by Kotis is the Elsewhere Museum on South Elm Street in downtown. Elsewhere is a living museum, unique in that artists create arrangements using only the materials available on site. The museum describes itself as a “collaborative learning laboratory built from Sylvia Gray’s three-story thrift store” using her 58-year collection of materials.

Kotis also mentioned The Forge, a 501(c)3 nonprofit community makerspace brought to life by fellow developer Andy Zimmerman. The Forge is a popular “hands-on” space where people can gather to “work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, tools, and knowledge.”

Beyond the explosion of street art and upping the “cool factor,” Kotis also expressed concern that the city could be on a “downward spiral” economically in comparison to other cities in the state. He also believes he can help “move the needle” in investments for his hometown.

“Now, on the flip side of this,” said Kotis. “Why I believe in investing in Greensboro is that there’s not a lot of the institutional capital competing to come into this market, so, you can be kind of a big fish in a little pond here. You can impact the city more here.”

“If I go into Raleigh or Charlotte, I can do some cool stuff, but I won’t move the needle as much as I can here in Greensboro,” Kotis said. “And it’s my home, it’s where I’m from. So, I’d like to see it changed.”

Kotis added that he’d like to see it be a place where if his son would want to live or visit and not think Greensboro was boring or that he was “going back to Mayberry.”

About A.P. Dillon 682 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_