May 07, 2013 News & Features » Cover Story


Street Smarting 

Why the city's most famous outlaw muralist went corporate for art's sake.

click to enlarge In the weeks leading up to his monthlong exhibit, painter and muralist Ed Trask prepares in his Shockoe Bottom studio. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In the weeks leading up to his monthlong exhibit, painter and muralist Ed Trask prepares in his Shockoe Bottom studio.

Ed Trask is late and firing off text messages laced with frustration and expletives: "Where the fuck is this place?"

The place is Ancarrow's Landing in Manchester, where about 25 students from Armstrong High School have set up easels on the bank of James River. Pushing acrylic paint around on canvas, they puzzle over downtown Richmond's skyline and the river's peculiar greenish-brown hue.

The text message is directed at a reporter he'd told to meet him there several hours ago. Trask is supposed to be guest lecturing the students, who are on a plein-air painting field trip funded by an arts grant. It's a Tuesday afternoon and an art teacher says he was expecting Trask at least half an hour ago.

As Richmond's best-known mural artist, Trask's instructional qualifications aren't in doubt, though the likelihood of his arriving anytime soon is beginning to seem remote.

Instead of Ancarrow's, Trask traveled to Reedy Creek — a few miles upriver. It's either his mistake or a miscommunication. He isn't sure and it doesn't matter: Just days before a major exhibit of his work opens, he has dozens of not-quite-finished canvases and hours of painting ahead of him. Trask is scattered, tired and dying for some time to work uninterrupted in his studio.

Twenty-three years ago things moved a little slower. Fresh out of art school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Trask recalls standing on a street in downtown Richmond inspecting the first outdoor mural he'd ever painted.

click to enlarge Trask plays the drums with his band Kepone on Brown's Island during Style Weekly's Shadrock Music Festival last year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Trask plays the drums with his band Kepone on Brown's Island during Style Weekly's Shadrock Music Festival last year.

He put it up earlier in the day. No one asked him to paint on the building, and, technically speaking, the work constituted vandalism. Trask didn't care. Living in Richmond in the '90s, he played drums with the touring punk-rock band the Holy Rollers and bounced between odd jobs to pay the bills. And he peppered the city with street art because he couldn't get gallery owners to talk to him. He had the time and he thought the city could use the art.

Trask watched a businessman — or at least a man in suit who looked a little beaten-down — walk by, stop, and look up at the work. It was a harshly rendered, black and white likeness of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, a novelist that Trask was reading at the time. The businessman turned away with a disgusted look on his face.

"At first I wanted to yell, 'Hey, fuck you,'" Trask says. But he came around to see it as a victory. It didn't matter that the guy seemed to hate his work. Trask had forced someone in the rut of daily life downtown to stop and consider something new. "I'd realized that I'd changed someone's life and had them interpret something creative," he says. "That initial stare is worth a million dollars to me. The person stops."

Today, at 45, the outlaw mural artist has a wife, two children and more projects going than he can name. His scrappy, punk-rock work ethic has catapulted him into a career as a full-time artist. He no longer waits tables and takes work as a plumber's assistant between the paying art gigs.

At the same time, the reality of making a living as a painter has taken his career in a direction that by his own account isn't always very, well, punk rock. He consults. He manages. He organizes. He attends endless meetings. Instead of fighting the city bureaucracy, he's part of it. His commissions come from Fortune 500 companies.

It takes some getting used to.

"Going to the architecture review board and saying, 'I want to paint on this wall,' and them agreeing to it is just bizarre," he says. "If I went to the city or some of these different corporations like I did to ask for money five years ago, they would have just laughed. But now I think a lot of these corporations and the city themselves are starting to see the importance."

click to enlarge During a Richmond Public Schools field trip to Ancarrow's Landing in Manchester, Ed Trask works with Ashley O. Fleming, a senior at Armstrong High School. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • During a Richmond Public Schools field trip to Ancarrow's Landing in Manchester, Ed Trask works with Ashley O. Fleming, a senior at Armstrong High School.

Trask finally has Richmond where he always wanted it — even if at times he comes across as a bit harried by all his obligations. For example, when he's standing in a parking lot at Reedy Creek when he's supposed to at Ancarrow's Landing, and really should be in the studio painting for his approaching show.

When Trask finally arrives at the river, it's on a bicycle via the trail system that snakes along the banks of the James. The basket on the back of his bike is packed with paint and brushes. Just before he pulls up to the group of students he curses at himself. "I'm seriously late," he concedes. With that, he exhales, lets go and works his way around the semicircle of painters, handing out tubes of acrylic and rendering advice.

He's energized by the interactions. Organizers conceived the field trip as a way to connect students from Richmond's poorest neighborhoods to their surroundings and the city's history, leveraging art to make people stop to consider something new. As late as he was and despite a looming deadline for his show, it's clear this is the only place in the city he wants to be.

Standing behind one girl's easel, he watches her struggle to mix a color that appropriately represents the river. The James is a subject that makes frequent appearances in Trask's work, and he knows just what to tell her: The greenish-brown water needs some blue in it, because dark and murky as the water is, it still reflects the sky. Trask offers a few encouraging words and moves on around the circle.

The girl nods and turns back to her canvas.

click to enlarge In this 1997 photo, Trask poses with the mural he painted on the side of Sidewalk Cafe on Main Street. - FILE PHOTO BY JAY PAUL
  • File photo by Jay Paul
  • In this 1997 photo, Trask poses with the mural he painted on the side of Sidewalk Cafe on Main Street.

Even if you don't recognize the artist's name, you've seen his work. It's all over Richmond: The giant, blue, Latin heads rising from the sidewalk on the side of Kuba Kuba in the Fan. The face of Nina Simone peering out of a dark background at Globe Hopper Coffee on Main Street in Shockoe Bottom. The larger-than-life figures bringing in the harvest over the parking lot of Ellwood Thompson's Natural Food Market in Carytown. Princess Diana, who until recently adorned a strip club in the Bottom.

The murals are vibrant and blocky, melding geometry and chaos in almost equal parts. The distinct style traces back to Trask's first foray into street art — that mural he put up on an otherwise uneventful weekday morning in the summer of 1990.

He recalls pulling on a jumpsuit and stuffing a forged permission slip into his pocket. His target was a temporary plywood wall at the future home of the State Corporation Commission, then just a construction site at Main and 14th streets. Trask was nervous, worked fast and tried to act official. No one so much as looked at him funny, and an hour later he was done.

click to enlarge Trask painted a mural of Princess Diana on the side of this Shockoe Bottom strip club shortly after her death.
  • Trask painted a mural of Princess Diana on the side of this Shockoe Bottom strip club shortly after her death.

He still keeps a picture of the painting, which, like the 20 that followed in quick succession, is long gone. The work was linear, bold and rough. Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish-born novelist, was hunched with drooping eyes and an arched brow, his mouth twisted in indifference. Trask says he was reading one of the author's novels. He can't remember which, only that he was lost in it for weeks. It's a feeling that comes through in the work's melancholy, punk-rock aesthetic.

Trask got off on the thrill of force-feeding his work to an unwilling city. Downtown Richmond felt to him like it was going to pieces — a desolate and depressing place where people walked fast and were oblivious to the people around them.

Trask was just a good old boy from Loudoun County who'd enrolled at VCU and become part of the city's underground music scene. Local promoter Chris Bopst, a music columnist for The Richmond Times-Dispatch and, played in the Holy Rollers with Trask. The group released three records on Dischord, a serious punk label. Trask drummed and Bopst played bass.

"He was a drunken hellion just like the rest of us," Bopst says.

The two graduated from VCU together at a time when Bopst says the university wasn't necessarily considered an asset to the city. He heard Richmonders refer to it as "that art-fag college." Bopst says the turn to street art was a logical outgrowth of the punk scene's do-it-yourself ethic.

"That was the start of trying to get art into the public eye," Bopst says. "... Ed took it to the next level with his painting, merging the world between street-level, punk-rock graffiti and the serious art world."

Whether Trask's work in fact constituted art was a subject that divided Richmonders. Style Weekly tackled the subject in a 1997 cover story that profiled Trask. It quotes the then-president of the Fan District Association, Ruth Miller, pleading for "no paintings or pictures on buildings — period."

Not only was it obvious to her that Trask's unauthorized work constituted graffiti, according to the article she "wasn't too keen on his authorized paintings on the sides of Fan buildings either."

click to enlarge Trask's murals dot the city. He painted this trolley on a wall off the Canal Walk downtown last year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Trask's murals dot the city. He painted this trolley on a wall off the Canal Walk downtown last year.

Trask is quoted saying the Fan District Association is a bigger threat to Richmond than street art. "Things are becoming so damn sterile," he said.

And by 1997, Trask was starting to represent a serious hazard to that sterility. Increasingly, he was picking paid commissions, and his work was covering more and more of Richmond's cherished brick walls. His first paid mural job came from restaurateur Johnny Giavos, the owner of the Sidewalk Cafe on Main Street in the Fan. The work, still visible, depicts a beauty queen in harsh sunlight holding a scepter and wearing a sash that reads Miss Sidewalk.

Trask was put off by Richmond's stuck-in-the past way of doing things, but Trask says he appreciated Richmond's Southern sensibility, low cost of living, and the underground community of musicians and artists he found here.

"There was so much talent," he says. "This person was always playing in this band, but he saw you were doing video work, and this person knew this person who knew how to do that — everybody just kind of pulled together. And it was incestuous and kind of communal at the same time. There was so much talent, artwise."

Still, to keep it together in Richmond as a musician and painter, he had to hustle. He worked as a bike messenger, a bartender, a plumber's assistant, delivered Chinese food and waited tables off and on at Millie's Diner.

And he'd leave for weeks at a time to tour across the country and abroad with the punk bands he played for through the years: the Holy Rolers, Kepone, Corntooth and Avail.

On the road, Trask took paint and brushes with him and put up murals between shows wherever he felt inspired. He says he's responsible for at least 15 in Amsterdam alone.

Bopst says that when they were on tour, the manager would ask, "Where's Trask?" They'd find him either painting in an alley or in the nearest bar.

"You'd find him with all these toothless older guys toasting him and he'd be saying, 'I love this place,'" Bopst says. Trask was and is congenial, ceaselessly enthusiastic and generally happy. "He ... could find himself at home anywhere."

And in Richmond, his profile kept rising. It accompanied a realization Trask says was spreading among the creative types who had made the city their home: "I can make a change. I can do what I want here. There was a realization that, holy shit, this city is mine."

click to enlarge Trask pauses with his daughter, Eleanor, and wife, Kelly, at the opening of his art show at Glave Kocen Gallery. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Trask pauses with his daughter, Eleanor, and wife, Kelly, at the opening of his art show at Glave Kocen Gallery.

Ross Lynch wears sunglasses and has blond, little-boy bangs. He's in a Disney Channel show (Trask can't remember which one) and plays teeny-bop rock music. More importantly, Trask knows his daughter, Eleanor, who's 9, and son, Loudon, who's 4, love the kid. This distresses Trask. But not so much so that when Lynch plays a show at the National in April he doesn't attend with his family.

Kelly, his wife of 11 years, had the idea. She says his reaction was abrupt and negative. "We are so not going to do that," he told her.

But he came around to it, and scored VIP tickets to get him up in a balcony away from all the other little kids. And there he and his wife watched from above while Eleanor, Loudon and the kiddie fan base went nuts in front of the stage.

"I think in the moment where he saw all the joy in their faces, he knew he'd done the right thing — even though it was very un-punk rock," Kelly says. "It became about the kids and not just him."

As Trask has grown as a person and an artist, he increasingly finds himself in situations he would have found compromising 20 years ago. Raising a family and making sure you can pay a $900-a-month health insurance bill means you make some concessions along the way, he says. And whether that means attending a Disney concert that represents everything he thinks is awful about commercial music or sitting in a conference room with Altria executives hammering out the details of a major commission, he'll do it — even if it feels a little awkward at first.

He recalls his first meeting with Altria, when they sought him out to do a 100-foot mural for one of the company's community outreach initiatives in Richmond. The first thing out of his mouth when they called him was, "Is this a joke?"

"I go home and talk to my wife, and I had never taken any kind of serious corporate money before this point, and I was like: 'What the fuck do I do? This is Philip Morris money. I don't want money from them.' She says, 'If they're going to give you full curatorial power, why would you not?'"

And Altria did give him full artistic license. Trask couldn't think why he would turn down the money to paint a 100-foot mural in Richmond and covered his mortgage payment and other bills for a month.

Kelly watched him overcome his initial unease. "He realizes sometimes we need to bend and shape and compromise on things where we may have been like, 'Oh gosh, I'd never do that,' and then really good things end up coming from it," she says.

click to enlarge "Bill's Barbecue," a piece from Trask's current show at Glave Kocen Gallery, sold for $2,200. - ED TRASK
  • Ed Trask
  • "Bill's Barbecue," a piece from Trask's current show at Glave Kocen Gallery, sold for $2,200.

Since then Trask has done work for the likes of Dominion Resources, Gap, Old Navy, Heinz, NBC, Forbes and But he still puts up local murals, paints signs, and does portraiture. And he still plays punk music with Kepone, which is back together.

He also puts together semi-regular gallery shows. Locally he's represented by Glave Kocen Gallery. Co-owner BJ Kocen, a musician who's known Trask for almost 10 years, says Trask isn't the same 20-year-old punk who took on Richmond in the early '90s, but his roots as a street artist are still evident in his work. Trask's style — the severe lines, the muted, yet vibrant earth-tone-heavy pallet — has remained more or less the same through the years, even as he's advanced technically as a painter.

Trask may be staying true to his roots, but says he sometimes misses the spontaneity and purity of making street art. "It doesn't get sterilized in the process of thinking about it too much or going to so many ... meetings and talking about the creative process," he says. "And that drives me crazy."

He estimates that 50 percent of his time is spent on nonart-making tasks such as meetings, planning and networking. A white board in his Shockoe Bottom studio is divided into blocks with different labels: Martin Agency party, lecture, flights, La Diff party.

He helped art direct the recent daylong session of talks called TEDxRVA. He organized the city's first street art festival last year with now-City Councilman Jon Baliles. He and Baliles are behind a second festival planned for September at the old GRTC Transit System bus depot on Cary Street in the Fan. And Trask also works with city students as part of grant-funded arts programs.

All the administrative stuff eventually gives way to projects that move forward the kind of change he wants to see in the city, he says.

Take the street art festival. Baliles and Trask have secured permission to bring local and national artists to paint walls on GRTC's abandoned bus depot. Baliles says it has the potential to turn an abandoned structure into a destination.

"Twenty years ago we didn't have conversations like this," Baliles says. "It was: 'This is the way it's always been.' And we don't accept that anymore."

click to enlarge The walls of Trask's studio are covered by work in various stages of completion. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The walls of Trask's studio are covered by work in various stages of completion.

A few minutes after 6 p.m. on Friday, patrons are just starting to filter into Glave Kocen Gallery on Main Street for the opening of Trask's show. Canvases that had been scattered in various states of completion around Trask's studio hang neatly against the gallery's bright, white walls. Aside from those chaotic, cloud-filled skies that dominate Trask's scenes, the end product betrays none of the mad, frantic energy that characterizes the two weeks leading up to this.

Kelly Trask says her husband's adrenalin-fueled work ethic can induce anxiety in those around him. When Trask arranged for artists to speak at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with last year's street art festival, an organizer at the museum started getting nervous. Kelly, a yoga instructor who sometimes serves as Trask's manager, called: "I told her, 'He's going to freak you out leading up the event, but he will pull it together and he will pull it together well.'"

click to enlarge Trask talks to patrons at the opening of his show Friday at Glave Kocen Gallery. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Trask talks to patrons at the opening of his show Friday at Glave Kocen Gallery.

In the case of Trask's latest show, Kocen says it's not unusual for artists to bring in work that still has wet paint on it. And wet or not, people are responding to the pieces: Before the show opened, nine of the paintings — at prices ranging from $750 to more than $4,000 — already have sold.

At about 6:20, Trask rushes in the gallery's back door and up a flight of stairs. He reappears, but only to dart out the front door and across Main Street to Heritage, where he takes a seat at the bar and orders bourbon on the rocks. Unprompted, the chef brings him a plate of charcuterie and asks about the show. This question seems to remind Trask that he probably should get back to his opening.

Trask soon dashes out the door and into traffic. A Volvo SUV just misses him, but Trask is oblivious. He pauses outside the gallery door before entering.

Inside, the frantic energy gives way to friendly and enthusiastic conversations with everyone who approaches. The crowd ranges from older art admirers to hip-looking young families. A lot of children are running around. Two of them are Trask's.

While he talks to an older woman about a painting, his daughter runs up and hugs his arm. Trask looks down and smiles. Eleanor lets go and runs off. Trask looks up again, still smiling, and dives back into the conversation. S



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