ST. PETERSBURG — One of the best ways to get a taste of Central Avenue’s eclectic visual arts scene is to duck off the street and into the back alleys.
Here giant canvasses, some of them two stories high, cover utility lines and fire escape ladders with sweeping, colorful scenes of sea creatures, landscapes and faces such as a portrait of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Murals first commissioned to deter graffiti artists from spray-painting the back walls of businesses have spread to so many downtown buildings that guides have begun organizing tours.
On Saturday, Liz Rogers from the Florida Craftsmen Gallery led a half-dozen people through puddles and parking lots to gawk at the backside of the State Theatre, a tableau mixing images of roses, hawks, snakes and a human face emerging in shades of orange, black and turquoise created by local artists Leon “Tes One” Bedore and Chris Parks.
A woman asked when the next mural was scheduled to be painted.
“They’re popping up so much, it’s hard to keep up,” Rogers said.
“There aren’t a lot of blank canvasses left,” she added later in the tour.
Some of the first murals appeared behind Central Avenue’s 600 block a few years ago when a string of empty storefronts with modest rents began attracting artists, clothing designers and other creative entrepreneurs.
Rather than constantly covering over the uninvited scrawls of graffiti artists, property owners employed some of the city’s best painters to put up permanent works of art.
“It definitely speaks to how murals deter local taggers and graffiti artists from tagging the building because they respect the artists’ work so much that instead of painting on top of it, they kind of step back and admire it and aspire to it in some ways,” Rogers said.
Dozens of murals can be found in alleys and on sides of buildings along Central Avenue, mostly concentrated in and around the 600 block, where a new weekly walking tour kicked off Saturday.
Tour organizer Eat, Sip, Indulge, which takes visitors on guided trips to local eateries, teamed with the Florida Craftsmen Gallery to provide an educational journey through the city’s thriving urban art scene.
A large portion of the proceeds from the tour, which is $19 for adults, goes back to the artists to help them fund more mural projects, said Deborah Molise of Eat, Sip, Indulge.
“Our whole concept is to attract more and more people into the community to really appreciate the art and the food and all the local businesses we have,” Molise said.