Richmond muralist “The Night Owl” paints his way into the book business

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A local artist put down his paints and picked up a pen and camera to document the history of murals in the city.

Mickael Broth, perhaps better known as his artist alias The Night Owl, is publishing “Murals of Richmond,” a compilation of photographs documenting the transient murals around the city through the years, plus interviews with other muralists.

Published through Chop Suey Books in Shockoe Slip, the 222-page book will be released next month.

Broth – who has been involved in a couple hundred murals in Richmond – made himself a subject of the book as well; his wife conducted the interview. He cites her as his initial inspiration because she had alerted him to a Facebook post asking if there was a coffee table book about murals.

“It was just this instantly formed idea,” Broth said in an interview this week, fittingly clad in paint-splattered clothing. “I could see what size it should be, what the layout should be, interviews. It was just like ‘Oh, I’m going to do this.’”

The project took Broth about eight months to complete. He shot photos of existing murals and collected photographs others had taken of murals that have come and gone on buildings, both occupied and derelict, or no longer in existence. He also conducted about 70 interviews and solicited essays.

“Some (images) are mine. Lots are contributed by local photographers who had the foresight to document the early days – six years ago in 2012 – but it’s cool because a ton of the work in here is gone, so this is the format it lives on in.”

Be it due to the elements of seasonal changes, being painted over, or demolished for redevelopment, murals are not always a permanent fixture. While the book is much his homage to Richmond’s evolving street art scene, Broth made sure to include critical essays.

One of the essays comes from local artist Larry Lorca and reflects on consequences of murals in the city.

“There’s an essay in here that questions whether they (murals) are a harbinger of gentrification or visual representation of displacement,” Broth said. “That’s what I took from it, at least.”

Upon moving to Richmond in 2001, Broth and his mentor Ed Trask were ahead of the trend of adorning the sides of buildings with murals. The practice was technically illegal back then and by 2004, Broth had served 10 months in jail for vandalism. That stint inspired a self-published 2013 memoir titled, “Gated Community: Graffiti and Incarceration.”

Today, homeowners, businesses, municipal governments and nonprofits commission him and fellow muralists to paint and spray all around town.

Travel-minded Instagram users outside of Richmond may recognize his “Welcome to Richmond” postcard-style mural that he and Sure Hand Signs crafted on the side of Charm School Social Club.

“They reached out to me and Sure Hand Signs to do this one,” he said as he pointed to the mural in the book. “They knew that they were creating an Instagram spot, like the perfect spot for a selfie. That’s rad. That’s what it’s there for.”

Just as businesses have seen the value in tapping into the arts scene, Broth said murals can help “turn spaces into places.”

As the mural community has spread around Richmond, Broth has been part of the curatorial process, serving on the board of directors for the RVA Street Art Festival. He also occasionally coordinates with Richmond Region Tourism to show murals to travel writers from out of town.

“It’s fun to talk about. I know about the artists,” Broth said. “It’s cool to share that knowledge.”

Broth is happy to have been able to create a space for the murals to live beyond the realm of brick and mortar, not just let them fade away.

“One of the things that I really enjoy about this line of work is that it is temporary. It’s not going to be around forever, so it should be enjoyed for the time that it exists,” Broth said. “Now it lives on in a book.”

“Murals of Richmond” is available for pre-order at $25 on Chop Suey Books’ website.

ZZQ in Scott’s Addition, 3201 W. Moore St., will host a book-release party from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18.

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