The ChArt Outdoor Initiative seeks to beautify Avondale's hidden spots 

Alley Art

Geoff Richardson has a dream that no wall shall be left bare, no alleyway neglected. He has a dream to bring beauty and light to the dark corners of Charleston. His dream is manifested in the ChArt Outdoor Initiative.

As the co-owner of Lava Salon, Richardson has been an active part of West Ashley's Avondale community since 2006. He's seen businesses come and go — Modernisme art gallery and the Junk & Jive Retro Mart have sadly shuttered during his tenure, while Oak Barrel Tavern, the Turning Leaf, and the Carl Janes-designed Mellow Mushroom have recently taken up residence. Despite the changes, the neighborhood's funky, artsy vibe remains constant. That's why Richardson thinks Avondale is the perfect place for a major mural project.

It started with the Avondale Point Mural Competition in 2009. Local artists submitted works to grace the tower over the Children's Cancer Society Thrift Store — Ed Hose's mermaid now lords over the neighborhood. Richardson admits that his motivation fizzled out after that initial movement, but he's on track again with ChArt, which he hopes will turn the backsides of Avondale businesses into something akin to the Sheepman-designed Buffalo South mural on James Island. Richardson wants to take the project beyond the typical back-alley tags and make it an arts destination highlighting a variety of artists and styles.

"It's not just graffiti. It's not just tagging your name on a wall anymore," Richardson says. "It's a full blown self-expression revolution. And it's definitely here. I want to do it in a legitimate way. I want to provide that opportunity so people don't have to do it illegally."

It's a slow process for Richardson, who's seeking full approval from city officials as well as support from nonprofits to help fund the initiative — i.e. the cost of paint and artists' time. At this point, however, the biggest hurdle is getting approval from local property owners wary of having their buildings painted.

"Some people don't want it," Richardson says. "They don't want to feel like their town is painted up. But I think places like alleys are the perfect place to make something pretty, to fill that dead space. Otherwise it's just a blank wall and there's nothing fun about that."

Ed Kronsberg, a big supporter of the initiative, works for Ashley Shops, which owns the strip of buildings on Magnolia Road that includes Pearlz, Mellow Mushroom, and Al di La.

"It's really been an exciting event for Avondale, which is sort of a hip and fun area," Kronsberg says. "We thought that having more art, letting local artists express themselves in a partnership with the city, would be a good idea."

For now, Richardson is taking it one wall at a time. Ishmael is completing work on the first mural, a full-color picture of a woman with flowing hair. The next project scheduled will extend over four parking spaces behind the shops, with local artists like Patch Whiskey and Scott Debus painting their own 2-D vehicles on the walls of each space. Richardson is saving the best wall for Shepard Fairey, hoping he'll accept the offer to contribute.

But Richardson's big plans aren't just hinging on Fairey. He hopes to host an alley party, complete with a DJ and food trucks, to call attention to the initiative. He also wants to eventually grow beyond Avondale and to use QR codes on the murals to help spread the word in a virtual way.

"Charleston's the perfect place for this," Richardson says. "We can be old school and new school at the same time."

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