Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 18, 2017

© Gesi Schilling / Wynwood Arts District

Gallery Diet is one of the 70 galleries, museums and shops in the Wynwood Arts District.

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Miami paints the town

The city’s hottest neighbourhood is an ex-industrial wasteland now home to murals and art galleries

In his latest book, Back To Blood, Tom Wolfe describes the Wynwood Arts District in Miami as a place where “even the palm trees were bohemian.” In September, Forbes magazine pegged it as one of “America’s Hippest Hipster Neighbourhoods.” And in early December, Wynwood was the focal point of Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the biggest and wildest art events in the world.

High time you made a visit, wouldn’t you say? But if you don’t know any Russian oligarchs to hobnob with, à la Wolfe, or any hip hipsters, who or what should be your entrée?

This is where Roam Rides comes in. They will put you on a Vespa scooter and take you on a guided three-hour tour of the neighbourhood, which has over 70 galleries, museums, shops and restaurants plus hundreds of buildings whose walls are covered in graffiti murals and street art. They’ll also give you lunch.

Bombs and tags

Formerly an industrial area, Wynwood is north of downtown Miami and just south of what is now called the Design District. Twenty years ago, it had fallen into total disrepute, its shoe factories and bottling plants abandoned, its streets littered with street gangs and crack dealers. However, when they weren’t robbing hapless citizens who stumbled into Wynwood after dark, or even in the day, some gang members amused themselves by bombing the buildings with tags and throw-ups (i.e., spray painting graffiti).

Streetwise types who were more interested in art than larceny eventually joined in, and in 2005, a small group of graffiti artists who called themselves Primary Flight persuaded business owners to let them paint murals on the walls of their buildings. Sponsors got involved, including the renowned and powerful art collector Marty Margulies (his daughter Liz is the former drug addict on the Bravo reality show Gallery Girls), and Tony Goldman, a developer who had been instrumental in rejuvenating New York’s Soho and Miami’s South Beach.

Goldman, who died in September, invested heavily in the neighbourhood, buying up buildings and commissioning wall paintings. In 2009, he set aside several dilapidated building lots to create Wyndam Walls, a street art complex that would become the centerpiece for the Wynwood Arts District. As he said at the time, “Wynwood's large stock of warehouse buildings, all with no windows, would be my giant canvases to bring to them the greatest street art ever seen in one place.”

Art by vespa

And so, out of ruins, a cultural landmark was created. Along with it came the accompanying gentrification — Goldman always referred to it as “gentlefication” — as well as handsome payoff for the investors as the price of real estate skyrocketed.

“Twelve years ago this was a dangerous place,” said Marcos Vallela, an oil painting artist who doubles as a Roam tour guide. “There was no life and no reason to come here. Now artists and people come from all over the word.”

The Roam Street Art tour starts on South Beach, where you hop on a Vespa scooter and then take the Venetian Causeway over Biscayne Bay. The scooters are easy to ride, helmets are provided, but if you feel doubtful about your skills, you can double ride with a guide.

The ride over the Causeway takes about 15 minutes, and after you absorb the Miami panorama — the sun in your face, the wind in your hair — you hit Wynwood, which seems non-descript and possibly sketchy, until you notice the vibrantly-coloured paintings on the walls.

The Wynwood Arts District is five square kilometres, and on the tour you cruise and stop, as the guide explains the history of the area and the tricks and tools of the graffiti trade, pointing out how one work, or piece, is traditional underground street art, while another might be more conceptual, high contemporary or commercial (i.e., sponsored by a company to sell a product, frowned upon by most purists).

The Wynwood Walls complex and the adjacent Wynwood Doors, are the highlights of the tour, with murals by street artists from around the globe, including Americans like Kenny Scharf, Ron English, Futura2000 and Shepard Fairey (famous for the OBEY campaign and the Obama HOPE poster), to international artists like Aiko (Japan), Os Gêmeos (Brazil), ROA (Belgium), Invader (France) and many more.

There is a restaurant in the complex, Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, which is run by Tony Goldman’s daughter Jessica, and that’s where the tour usually stops for lunch.

Second Saturday parties

There are also 100 or more galleries in the District, as well as private collections, including the Dorsch Gallery, which was opened by Brook Dorsch 11 years ago, and was the first commercial gallery to open in the area, the Marguiles Collection at the Warehouse and the Rubell Family Collection, which is housed in a 4180-square-metre space where the Drug Enforcement Agency once held confiscated goods. If you want to take an in-depth look inside, Roam offers a Gallery Tour. All the tours can also be done on bicycle, or on foot, starting in Wynwood rather than South Beach.

Of course, you can visit Wynwood on your own, and if you like action, a good time to go would be the second Saturday of every month. In the evening the galleries open their doors (many offering free drinks), food trucks set up on the streets, thumping music fills the air and as many as 20,000 people mingle, dance and artistically pose in the once derelict neighbourhood.

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