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Off the wall
Savannah street artists hit Art Basel Miami

They were just going to go and look at art. Do a couple of live painting projects. Make some gallery connections. Maybe attend a party or two. Get inspired.

But when opportunity knocked for local artists Matt Hebermehl, Adolfo Hernandez (aka “Inope”) and Jose Ray to paint two walls in Miami’s famed Wynwood District, the cans and brushes came out.

The friends and frequent collaborators had traveled separately to South Florida two weeks ago for Art Basel, the largest and hippest art show on the globe that took place this year Dec. 5–8. Held since 2000 as a winter offering to its parent show in Switzerland, Art Basel takes over Miami Beach for four days, hosting 260 international galleries from Rio to Reykjavik and showcasing over 2,000 artists.

It’s a mecca for makers, thinkers, collectors, celebrities and connoisseurs of contemporary culture. It has spawned a galaxy of satellite fairs, essentially turning the city into a gargantuan gallery, inside and out.

A record–breaking 50,000 people attended Art Basel this year, and a healthy Savannah contingency was there representing, including writer Summer Teal Simpson, photographer and gallery owner Susan Laney, artists Marcus Kinney and Katherine Sandoz, and actress Maggie Lee Hart.

“It’s like art camp for the world,” describes Hebermehl, who drove down to attend, among other events, a talk with Savannah–connected filmmakers JR and JosÉ ParlÀ about their new documentary The Wrinkles of the City, about the art collectives in Havana, Cuba.

Inope and Ray had caught a ride with Rachel Raab, a graphic artist who owns local branding and printing company The Soda Shop. Raab had been accepted at the Verve and Fountain art fairs, two ancillary Art Basel events.

She offered up her 2011 Concord RV for live painting demos to the mural artists, who decked out the 30–foot “canvas on wheels” in their signature kaleidoscopic styles.

It was late Friday night during the Fountain fair that renowned street artist Patch Whiskey, a recent transplant to Savannah also surfing the Art Basel scene, called with a tip: The owner of a building in the Wynwood District wanted someone to come paint over a couple of walls.

“Patch called and said, ‘If you want it, come get it,’” says Hernandez. “I went over there that second, and by the time I’d primed it, Matt showed up, around midnight. Then Jose came a half hour later, and we painted until five o’clock in the morning.”

There was a short breakfast break and then more painting until Sunday evening, when Hernandez had to drive his wife home to Savannah to report for work on Monday morning.

“It just came together so last minute,” marvels Ray, who managed to nab an unsupervised electric lift from down the street and used it to reach the high spots.

The result is a vibrant, multi–layered caddy corner composed of Inope’s Aztec imagery and Middle Eastern swirls, Hebermehl’s neon markings the others call his “zipzaps” and Ray’s comic–inspired hands and clouds.

Raab didn’t mind being left high and dry with her half–painted RV.

“It was so amazing that this opportunity came by. Of course they had to take it!” laughs the ArtPort 912 cofounder, who is tentatively planning a local event next month to finish the mobile mural.

The Wynwood Walls have become an international sensation since 2009, when developer Tony Goldman transformed a rough neighborhood of empty warehouses and autobody shops into a massive mural and street art project. Attracting the biggest names in the street art world, Wynwood has become a zenith for the genre, and the chance to paint there is validation for the artists as well as for public art itself.

All three artists have been deeply involved in the movement to make Savannah friendlier to street art, and the recognition they’ve earned during Art Basel may help the cause. As Savannah’s art scene steadily builds, the city may want to take note of Miami’s phenomenally successful inclusion of public murals as way to attract visitors.

As the trio worked in Miami, thousands of Baselgoers wandered away from the central locale in the Miami Convention Center and gathered in crowds to watch the Wynwood spectacle, which the artists attribute to the interactive nature of the genre.

“Painting on a wall is much more exciting than the gallery scene,” grins Ray. “Just don’t call it graffiti.”