The Spud King, as he is popularly known, peeks out at Ninth Street to greet passersby and lure them into the historic alley between Bannock and Idaho streets. Atop what appears to be layers of old advertisements and graffiti, the jolly ceramic face looks almost accidental and forgotten--a crowned king of another era. But a closer look reveals an intricacy of disjointed parts that is unmistakably purposeful.
That was the intention of artist Kerry Moosman when he made Alley History, a vintage-esque collage composed of graffiti, memorabilia, Chinese ideograms and ceramic materials against a backdrop of painted advertisements. It looks as if it has been there forever, which is the goal of much public artwork.
"The work becomes about that place, or the place becomes about that work. It becomes a landmark that helps to create a unique sense of place," said Karen Bubb, public arts manager at Boise's Department of Arts and History.
The history of Boise is mimicked in the material layers of Alley History--there are nods to Boise's long-gone Chinatown and wealthy potato barons. Interestingly the piece has subsequently established its own reputation as a landmark in Boise's downtown, bringing the history of the alley full circle.
But public murals aren't always abstract creations. Often they depict the region's history much more literally. A mural recently completed at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology creates a geologically accurate representation of Grimes Creek for the museum's mining camp exhibit.
"We went through the trouble of having a geologist photograph Grimes Creek and the surrounding hills," said Coyote Short, a geologist for the museum.
Multiple consultants, including Short, were on hand during the project to assist artist Dee Burrow. The final product, not surprisingly, looks a lot like the original.
"It was a work of love and geology. Without those combined, it would never have worked as well as it did," said Short.
Artist Byron Folwell took the geological theme a step further. His 150-foot-long mural, Strata, recently went up on the walls surrounding the Boise Hole. The mural depicts sub-surface geologic layers intermingled with human biology--trees are rooted in the ground to look like hair follicles.
Folwell was commissioned by the Department of Arts and History to do a mural around the infamous hole, which is now slated to become the Idaho home of Zion's Bank. The Main Street Community Mural was started as an artful way to cover up the much-maligned downtown eyesore. In the process, the Main Street Mural has become as much a part of the downtown skyline as its predecessor, the Eastman Building, once was.
The mural, which went up in 2003, has displayed more than 15 pieces on topics ranging from bio-diesel research and native plants to wildlife and hunger.
"We try to look at who's using that spot, how does the public engage with that spot, is there a particular history for that location," said Bubb. "We want people to be engaged by what they're seeing and to be curious."
In some cases, that engagement takes the form of public disapproval--whether it be an issue of public spending or a condemnation of the work itself. Take the 1940s Works Progress Administration murals hanging in the old Ada County courthouse building, which have been controversial since their installation more than half a century ago. A particular panel includes two white settlers purportedly lynching a Native American, which was disguised behind a flag for years.
Barbara Perry Bauer and Elizabeth Jacox, Idaho historians and owners of TAG Historical Research and Consulting, noted that public art is always controversial because everyone has to look at it and, oftentimes, fund it.
Though many advocated removing the mural, the decision was made to preserve it, citing its historical and cultural value.
"It's a piece of work from a time in national and local history," said Jacox. "It stirs your interest to think about the WPA and how the perspective of our culture has changed over time."
The significance of the courthouse murals evolved beyond artful depictions of place to include the controversy itself. Something documenting Idaho history grew to become an integral part of that very history. In addition to adding to the city's aesthetic value, public murals have become vital parts of Boise's identity.
Veteran Boise muralist Fred Choate is no stranger to the construction and subsequent deconstruction of his own work. Choate has painted the Record Exchange's Hitchcock Building a total of four times. Choate understands the transformative power of murals, even if they don't last.
"The RX building was just an ugly, old, tired stucco building," said Choate. "But with a mural on it, it really attracts people."
If you frequent the downtown area, you've likely seen Choate's work. His pieces have adorned a number of Boise businesses, including: Ceramica, Gino's, Moxie Java and Cafe Ole. For someone whose work is so public, however, he's never been commissioned by the city.
"I don't think I've done any work with public money. It's all been through private individuals and private companies," Choate said. "It used to be, I would see an interesting wall and then I would find out who owned the wall ... and make a proposal."
And that is exactly what dozens of local artists recently did during the Freak Alley Gallery mural project. With permission from the city and business owners, artists brandished spray-paint cans and paint brushes to cover the alley walls from Eighth to Ninth streets between Bannock and Idaho streets, colloquially known as Freak Alley. From Kelly Knopp's falling businessman to Julia Green's lederhosen-clad kid riding a sausage, these public murals help to chronicle Boise's ever-evolving arts culture.
Over time, like the Spud King, they will likely become established landmarks in their own right.