Smile Politely

Downtown murals: Homage to local history

Community and Transforming Urban Spaces

Closeup of mural in “biker alley” between Courier Café and Cafeteria & Company, Urbana.

Combine a local bike shop, a student artist, and some local stories, and what do you get?

Why, giant murals in Downtown Urbana, of course!

Last week, I met with Langston Allston, a local artist who is an upcoming senior in painting at the University of Illinois this year. When he’s not in class, chances are he’s cooking at his parents’ restaurant or finding a new surface to paint on, as long as it’s not canvas. “It’s been much more accessible for people,” Allston said.

Allston is the lead behind a very exciting project coming to C-U: Downtown Mural Project 2013. In the form of a Kickstarter, Allston and Tim Chao, his manager, are raising funds to pay for supplies to paint the walls of this town with murals that capture local history and stories.

Allston said he’s always been compulsive with painting. This project was born out of a conversation with Chao about how he really wanted to do murals in town. Chao, in turn, hooked Allston up with Matt Cho, who is currently renovating the space on Main Street that will soon become Cafeteria & Company.

The Kickstarter Campaign

So why a Kickstarter? Allston (pictured right) likes the site because it offers a very safe place to fundraise, and also allows him to get in touch with many people. He doesn’t want to do just one mural; he wants to do a lot more, perhaps even the whole block. Additionally, it offers a form of accountability: “It’s public proof that you’ll do it.”

The current mural is located in “biker alley,” between Courier Café and the area behind Cafeteria & Company. Allston calls it a “giant monument to Urbana!” It features two giant cyclists, decked out in colorful clothing, tattoos, and music devices, racing westward along the alley. A tribute to local musicians, the Duke of Uke is featured as playing on the music device, and Paul’s Bike Shop is referenced as well. The latter was mandatory as it was a major influence in the development of the piece.

Local Stories: Paul’s Bike Shop

Allston had played with a lot of different ideas for the theme of this mural. He knew, though, that it always had to have bikes in it because of how the project came around while talking with Chao at Neutral Cycle. It just happened, also, that an old bike shop was located at the end of the alley where this mural was to take place — Paul’s Bike Shop. Allston’s parents knew a former owner of Paul’s Bike Shop, Fritz Miericke, and that inspired a more thorough search into the story of how integrated and rich Champaign-Urbana really is. Allston and Chao contacted Paul Nicholson, the original owner of Paul’s Bike Shop, and he was happy to provide them with the story about the shop and his time in Urbana. Chao and Allston both noted the similarities between Nicholson and Chao — as both started their bike shops in Urbana garages. “This town brings about people of the same constitution,” Chao noted.

Allston said that now that they know about Paul’s Bike Shop and the story behind it, they want to be able to tell all the stories. “The cool thing about painting, especially public painting, is that you can tell the story to many people and people can identify with the story you tell,” Allston remarked. “It’s cool to be able to tell the stories people don’t usually tell.”


Some of the challenges of working on this type of mural are that the bricks on buildings tear brushes up. Allston has learned to use a thick primer first, prior to painting: “Once you get the hang of it, it all comes along.” Allston has developed his own particular style that in his words, “looks like me,” and is able to transfer it to many different types of media and surfaces. To help with his first mural, Matt Cho helped Allston by purchasing some special graffiti markers that Allston has always wanted to help out with the mural’s completion.

The first mural took about three weeks, but Allston said that now that he’s done the first one, the rest will come faster. Chao noted that cleaning up takes some time, too.


Friends Tim Chao and Langston Allston at Neutral Cycle in Urbana, where the mural project first started.

The real story behind the mural, behind the artist and his friend, and behind all the local history stories lies in the philosophy of what it means to be a community. Chao philosophized:

The idea for our generation is to find that voice for the town and amplify it. It’s perfect timing. Summer. Everything is growing. There’s construction and business in Urbana. We have hope that it will be a very different place when everyone’s working together. It’s very different. We need to make this difference clear. This isn’t trying to be unique for the sake of being unique. It’s something that’s already there; we just amplify it. What’s been done is just the first stage. We want more people to collaborate with.

To find more information, check out the Kickstarter (which continues until July 10, 1:11 p.m.) and get Allston and Chao to come do a mural on your wall!

The mural, incomplete at the time, paying homage to local bike culture, Paul’s Bike Shop, and the Duke of Uke.

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