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Pabst taps artists to paint Tampa murals

The huge Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can mural went up in just over 24 hours on a wall in Seminole Heights – a majestic, outer space-themed landscape with a VW Beetle floating amid the starry night.

Only by taking a close look, can the observer find the door, hidden in the can, that leads into the Olsen’s Air Cooled Volkswagen repair/restoration garage inside.

Though the wall art is probably 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall, don’t call it a Pabst “billboard.” Nope. This is “art,” and the Pabst painting is only one of several going up around Florida that form a street-wise, street-level marketing project by the brewer.

“The program isn’t necessarily a more is better type of thing,” said Pabst Florida marketing official Seamus Gallagher. “It’s more about aligning with the right artists in the right places, where the work isn’t just a billboard, but can become a focal point in the communities.”

Late Wednesday night, Gallagher watched the mural’s progress as artist Sebastian Coolidge made a few touches to the beer can to make the silver edges pop out. A man driving by stopped his car, pulled over, rolled down the window and just said over and over, “Man, that’s cool. That’s cool man,” and then drove off.

The marketing/art project blends a string of ultra-hip themes in modern culture. For generations, Milwaukee-based Pabst Blue Ribbon was a drink that symbolized steel-worker ethos of hard-working and hard-drinking, at a low price. But now “PBR” is enjoying a huge renaissance amid the hipster, beer-aficionado culture as a kind of retro-brand celebration.

Murals, meanwhile, are enjoying a similar renaissance. Just up the street, the Red Star Rock Bar that’s soon to open has an elaborately detailed art mural that features spinning records and rock icons like Mick Jagger. The reclusive and often-political artist that goes by the single name “Banksy” made huge buzz in New York modern art circles recently by painting scenes on buildings across the city for people to find, photograph and repost on their social media networks.

In Tampa, massive warehouses along Adamo Drive have been intricately painted with images of the city’s history — several stories tall and a block long.

Gallagher, for his part, leads the “field marketing” team in Florida for Pabst, and is liaison with both local bars and local artists. Next, he’ll commission a work near the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. And therein lays the regulatory rub. Any “billboard” that goes up in the city of Tampa must abide by a long list of rules that regulate public advertising, lest any property owner quickly erect a massive billboard that obliterates the nearby views.

Gallagher has the permission of the auto garage owner for the mural, and other locations around town. (Financial terms of that deal were not disclosed.) The City of Tampa has specific rules with on-site and off-site signs, and a 44-word, specific definition of public “Works of Art.” For instance, it must be “tangible creations by artists exhibiting the highest quality of skill and aesthetic principles.” As for who makes the determination of “art,” it is both legal and subjective, said City Attorney Julia Mandell. If the Pabst mural ever became an issue, Mandell said the city’s Public Arts Coordinator could go have a look and make a determination.

That being said, Seminole Heights is home to scores of artworks and murals of varying skill and size, including pieces on the side of barbershops that celebrate the lifestyle of the graffiti artist themselves.

If plans work out, by year’s end 2013, Gallagher says he may have three exterior murals and five interior ones around Florida with more to come in 2014.

That’s not to say other art/murals/ads don’t run into trouble. Several years ago, a fishing gear store in St. Petersburg painted large fish on the side of the company building, but ran afoul of the city’s ordinance that prevented businesses from “Advertising” with large images of items sold inside. The case eventually led the city to paint over the images, and triggered a contentious lawsuit.

As far as the Pabst project goes, they should have a clear path, said Jay Goulde, who leads the Outdoor Arts Foundation in Tampa, and he’s a big supporter. He looked at the mural and gave it his approval.

“Good on Pabst for their efforts to help beautify communities through art-in-public places endeavours,” he said. As long as the focus of the mural is on enhancing the cultural character of the neighborhood, Goulde said Pabst isn’t crossing the line between art and billboarding.

Furthermore, this kind of public art goes back as far as the 19th century, he said, and some examples are now art icons, including French alcohol advertisements. “Mail Pouch” tobacco murals on barns have become beloved parts of the Americana landscape. Some public art ads from the late 1800s are now in contemporary art museums throughout the world. “I was actually at the Tate Modern in London yesterday,” Goulde said. “Several examples of art-vertising murals are currently on display.”

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