Written by: Mecca Bos
Photo credit: @cyfione at Black Hart of St. Paul
Muralists are a particular kind of artist. Rather than find a muse in a quiet studio moment, connecting with the greater community at large is what moves them. What better place to do it than in public gathering spaces, where the main event is to devour something beautiful? Check out these unique St. Paul eating and drinking spots, and make it a point to take in the artwork, too-- it’s not just an afterthought.
Three muralists on why they do what they do, and what you can expect when you go to eat, drink, and get artsy:
Rock ‘‘CYFI’’ Martinez at Black Hart of St. Paul
When Wes Burdine made the decision to place a mural on the University Avenue side of Minnesota’s only gay soccer bar, he knew it had to be something that reflected the ethos of not just the bar, but the historic Midway neighborhood and the meaningful history of the storied establishment.
In the 1920’s it was Tip Top Tap, part of the supper club tradition in the neighborhood. Then, round about the 1960s, it became a gay bar-- likely the first in the neighborhood. The bar went on to have a number of evolutions, including Country and Western when line dancing was big. Burdine knew that with the coming Allianz Field soccer stadium-- and the upcoming women’s national soccer league to Minnesota-- fans would need a place to gather. But it couldn’t be just any old sports bar. It would have to reflect the longtime staff and clientele that makes what was once The Townhouse the crucial neighborhood touchstone that it was, and continues to be.
“We are one of the few remaining original Midway bars-- it’s a dying breed. The kind of place you can walk to and pop in and say ‘hey.’ It’s very hard to take over an old space and not jack up prices and gentrify it.”
But they did it. Black Hart is diverse, economically and racially, and you can take in a game on the screen in one room, or check out a drag show in the other room, and the two will never conflict with each other. It’s an iconic place that stands in its own history, confidence, and advocacy, and the mural by international aerosol artist Rock Martinez of Meghan Rapinoe striking her iconic pose after scoring against France in the World Cup felt like the perfect reflection of those values.
“It’s also vibrant and flamboyant,” like the bar, Burdine explains. “It’s their place, my place, our place. A place of joy.”
The artist, Rock Martinez, an indigenous graffiti artist native to Tuscon, says he “holds a spray can more than he wears shoes.”
Every single day, he uses the medium of spray paint on wall to bring focus and attention to disenfranchised and marginalized communities. He made a name for himself locally after creating the now-iconic Prince with white dove mural at 26th and Hennepin, now on display at the Minneapolis/ St. Paul International Airport.
He says he’s been an artist his entire life: “Everyone has an instinct of existence,” and making art is his.
Also check out Martinez’ mural “The Spirit of The Mississippi,” on the facade of The Wycliff Creative Spaces, where he and his wife Brandi Kole, also an artist, have a studio. This mural is in the Creative Enterprise Zone, located mid-city between downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis, a part of the city where people make a living by their creative capacities. Chroma Zone Mural & Art Festival in 2021 runs May through September.
Hibaaq Ibrahim at Stella Belle
Like a number of local muralists, Hibaaq Ibrahim is a painter who found her true calling during the height of the uprising surrounding the murder of George Floyd.
“If I was going to contribute, it was going to be through art.”
She painted her first mural, a still life in food, as a volunteer at Southside Food & Deli during the uprising.
“I just wanted to be with community.” She wasn’t alone. The sheer number of spontaneous artworks during the summer of 2020 is staggering. Check out the grassroots efforts of Save The Boards for more information on the conservation, cataloguing, and curating of George Floyd inspired public artworks.
Hibaaq’s plant and botanical inspired works are thanks in part to an upbringing by a mother who studied botany.
“I probably have 15,000 photos of leaves just from around my neighborhood. I learn a lot from plants. They’re so resilient, and yet they need other plants to survive. It’s symbiotic.”
Her youth work with teenagers has her spending a lot of time thinking about mental health: “Teenagers are going through it, just because of that place in life.” So she tries to make art that makes people happy.
“Murals are like jumping into a painting. It’s like you’re creating a moment for people.”
It just so happens that Mediterranean-inspired Stella Belle is located in one of St. Paul’s prettiest neighborhoods. Go for an extensive menu of sandwiches, wraps, pastries and even Cacio Pepe Eggs or Shakshuka, and get a moment of happy.
View Ibrahim’s art on Instagram: @moonjuiceart
Dani Bianchini at El Burrito Mercado
When Dani Bianchini moved to the Twin Cities from Argentina 20 years ago, El Burrito was the only place she knew to get South American food, so she drove from Minneapolis to the West Side regularly to eat, but also to be in the community, and the culture she knew.
When she and co-muralist Pablo Kalaka were given the opportunity to create a mural there, it seemed only fitting to go to the community before they put brush to paint.
The duo wound up asking a classroom of third-graders from Riverview Westside School what they would like to see go on the mural. The kids then interviewed their parents and grandparents, and the result is what you now see:
“Latin Americans, Natives, animals, festivals, food, culture, and family,” says Bianchini.
“Public art is for the public. I’m just a medium.”
El Burrito will also be the site of Bianchini’s ongoing Trash Can Mosaics project, where she makes garbage beautiful with her mosaic murals.
“With mosaics, you’re always looking for surfaces-- places you can put your art. And trash cans are so ugly!”
El Burrito Mercado is one of St. Paul’s longest-standing family-owned and operated Latinx markets, restaurants, panaderias, and delis. It is a must-stop for understanding the cultural import of St. Paul’s West Side. Visit on a weekend for elote in the parking lot, and live Mariachi music on Friday evenings.
Bianchini’s El Burrito trash can art will not be finished until spring 2022, but in the meantime, check out her Trash Can Mosaics art all over the downtown St. Paul area.
Saint Paul Insider Tips from Dani:
What do you love about Saint Paul?
The people! I love people from Saint Paul-- they are very welcoming and friendly.
Any Saint Paul hidden gems?
Not so much hidden, but Crosby Farm Park is truly a St. Paul Gem.
Favorite place to take a visitor/guest?
Right now, driving on Shepard Road, with the fall colors is just breathtaking!
A neighborhood you love – and what is the vibe of that area?
Downtown is definitely my favorite place in Saint Paul. There is so much to it-- live music, beautiful green spaces, art, theaters, etc. During lunchtime, so many people walking the streets, and during the evenings, it can be quiet, or full of visitors for some event. It just feels like the city is alive there.
Favorite St. Paul place to eat or drink?
Key’s Cafe downtown has a place in my heart. I worked there for many years, and the food is sooo good!
View Bianchini’s art on Instagram: @dani_db_mosaicsarg
Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities based food writer and professional chef. Thinking of tacos and travel are hobbies. Her work can be found at meccaboswrites.com