The corner of Hertel and Commonwealth avenues is busy with commerce and the traffic is loud. But artists are at work here with brushes, ladders and buckets of paint. The stained glass design of their mural, which seems more fitting in a place of worship, symbolizes what this neighborhood stands for.
It’s part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s public art program. Aaron Ott, who curates the program, says the mural is called “We Are Here.”
“The inspiration for the title came from the design itself. So this design is sort of a graphic take on a physical map of North Buffalo along Hertel,” he said.
The mural also has a broader message for the Buffalo design studio that created it. Inclusivity and acceptance are the backbone of the design.
“For us, it was an opportunity to really, very directly talk about the kind of diversity of that neighborhood," said Brian Grunert, founder of the White Bicycle design studio. "The multi-colors speak to that but certainly this notion of a community of ‘we’ being reflected in that big word.
"But also, I think it speaks to the time. The idea of being welcoming in a communal way.”
For Grunert -- whose clients have ranged from big companies like 43 North to singer Ani DiFranco -- the stained glass effect of the mural also reflects the renewed vibrancy of the area. He says the project was an exciting opportunity for his team- and a bit of a departure for the Albright-Knox.
“When we got invited to participate, I think it was sort of a unique twist for them," he said. "They looked at us as a design studio and I think as a group of designers maybe invited a slightly different approach than somebody who is more focused on mural art might.”
Grunert says the placement of the mural is also unusual. “It’s a sidewalk-level, I’d call it a walk-by mural, because it is on street-level. It’s not raised above or covering the full side of a taller building.”
To Ott, the mural is a cultural indicator of Buffalo’s progress.
“Brian and his team at White Bike really wanted to embrace the notion of Hertel in particular, North Buffalo in particular, but the region in general as a place that welcomes people and is stronger for the way we come together to make the change we’ve wanted to see for a long time. I think that people are beginning to recognize and embrace this economic and cultural renaissance in the region,” he said.
The public art program began as a public-private partnership between the museum and Erie County and later, the city of Buffalo.
Ott says the mural program has taken off in the last few years. The most popular one is the Freedom Wall, created last year at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street. It shows local and national figures who have fought for equality.
On Hertel Avenue, another mural went up earlier this year on the side of Lloyd Taco Factory.
“What we found is that a lot of the business owners have really embraced the notion of these cultural indicators of public artwork along Hertel Avenue, and really signaling that you’ve arrived at a destination and location that is active,” Ott said.
Lou Bando, an electrician who has lived in North Buffalo his entire life, has seen plenty of changes on Hertel over the past two decades.
“Take Burning Buffalo…that was a different bar. As soon as they moved out, [Burning Buffalo] moved in," he said. "And a lot of places are established, like Gecko’s has been here since 2000. That was the old Mr. Tony’s."
And what does Lou think about the murals?
“They’re nice. I mean, touch it up. Instead of looking at regular red brick, you know? This is really colorful and nice.”
Ott says more murals will be popping up throughout the city this summer and into the fall.