“Mr. Dynamite” mural of James Brown in Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf)
Ohio Life

Cincinnati’s Vibrant Public Murals Tell the Story of the City

ArtWorks’ collection of over 250 permanent murals tells the stories of world-famous Ohioans, much-loved locals and the landmark institutions that call Cincinnati home.

A giant James Brown sings out from the side of a building along Main Street. A Care Bear frolics in a playroom with R2-D2, Mr. Potato Head and other classic toys on Court Street. These are just a couple of the dozens of scenes that surprise and inspire as you travel through Cincinnati.

Since 1996, ArtWorks has collaborated with community organizations, as well as businesses, residents, nonprofits, foundations and more, to create a citywide art gallery that celebrates the people, institutions and diverse communities that call the city home and further beautifies its already vibrant neighborhoods.

“The work that we do really has built so much civic pride,” says Colleen Houston, chief executive officer and artistic director for ArtWorks. “Because it’s created in partnership with different entities and provides jobs … we’re very intentional. When we work in a neighborhood, for example, we hire young artists who live in that neighborhood. So, it’s really creating art with the community, for the community — but it’s really of the community because the community wants the art.”

ArtWorks creates art mentorships for 14-to-21-year-olds, who are led by a group of around 300 professional artists. Together they work to make the city a more interesting place to live and visit, one mural at a time. Houston emphasizes the importance of free, public pieces that are inclusive of and accessible to the greater community. As she puts it, beautiful things happen when you “put art and culture front and center.”

“I think cities overall have been really rediscovered; there’s been a really big shift,” Houston adds. “But I think public art is part of that broader appreciation of place: appreciating the environment, appreciating history, the stories — what makes a place unique.”

Mr. Dynamite | 1437 Main St., Cincinnati 45202
Some of musician James Brown’s most formative years were spent at the city’s legendary King Records label, formed in 1943 by music mogul Syd Nathan. Once the sixth-biggest record company in the United States, King Records struck gold with Brown, who was the lead singer of a group called the Famous Flames, and the song “Please, Please, Please.” “[You can see] how important Cincinnati was in his career … his recording and distribution of his music,” Houston says. 

“Mr. Tarbell Tips His Hat” mural in downtown Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by the Gateway Merchants Group)
Mr. Tarbell Tips His Hat | 1109 Vine St., Cincinnati 45202
This large vertical mural shows Jim Tarbell dressed as Peanut Jim Shelton, a peanut vendor who was known for serving customers wearing a top hat and tuxedo at the Cincinnati Reds’ historic Crosley Field and later at Riverfront Stadium. Overseen by project manager Tim Parsley, the vibrant artwork rises along the side of the building that houses cocktail lounge Clutch OTR, depicting a Cincinnati original welcoming visitors to downtown

“The Migration of Tradition” mural in downtown Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by Rookwood Pottery, 2013 Adopt-An-Apprentice Campaign Contributors)
The Migration of Tradition | 1920 Race St., Cincinnati 45202
Decorating the side of Rookwood Pottery’s flagship store, this project designed by Tina Westerkamp shows the evolution of the storied company. The left side of the bird is formed first by Rookwood Heritage Collection tiles, and its body and head are made up of its Contemporary Classics. Our feathered friend is superimposed over an infinity sign, representing Rookwood’s harkening to its past and migration toward its future.

“Cincinnati Toy Heritage” mural in Cincinnati (photo by Stephanie Park)
Cincinnati Toy Heritage | 23 W. Court St., Cincinnati 45202
A playful tribute to local Kenner toys, this Jonathan Queen mural spans the side of Towne Properties’ building. “They’re left in this animated scene of play, almost like ‘Toy Story,’ like what happens when you leave the room,” Houston says. “So, it’s just delightful and whimsical. … But then when you learn that all of these toys were designed in Cincinnati, and that we have a really strong history of design — employing artists, employing toymakers, sculptors — that’s pretty phenomenal.” 

“Armstrong” mural in downtown Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by Fifth Third Bank)
Armstrong | 511 Walnut St., Cincinnati 45202
Designed by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra, this vibrant tribute to Wapakoneta native and astronaut Neil Armstrong appears on the side of Fifth Third Bank’s headquarters. “They really wanted to celebrate this larger icon and this larger symbol,” Houston says. “The artist, though, had some fun, and he put a little nod to E.T. in that mural, so [it’s] just another funny way of acknowledging another Cincinnatian, and that’s Steven Spielberg.” 

“Cheers to Cincy: Brewing the American Dream” mural in Cincinnati (photo J. Miles Wolf, supported by Boston Beer Corp. [Sam Adams])
Cheers to Cincy: Brewing the American Dream | 1625 Central Pkwy., Cincinnati 45202
This massive, comic-book-style work spans the side of Samuel Adams Brewery — a production facility that is not open to the public — and was created by designer Tom Post in partnership with the Boston Beer Corp. The piece, an expansion of the iconic “Cheers to Cincy, Past and Present!” celebrates the Queen City’s brewing heritage and current beer-making community, all presented in an optimistic and industrious light. 

“Fiona and Bibi at the Cincinnati Zoo” mural in Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden)
Fiona and Bibi at the Cincinnati Zoo | 910 Race St., Cincinnati 45202
Designed by Fort Thomas, Kentucky, native Lucie Rice, this colorful mural depicts the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s fan-favorite hippos, Fiona and her mother, Bibi, at play in the water. Fiona is beloved for being the smallest hippo born in captivity ever to survive, arriving six weeks premature. The mural is fittingly on the side of Rover the Rhine Veterinary Hospital and was painted as a reminder of the childlike wonder watching zoo animals inspires in visitors. 

“Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon” mural in Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by the Otto M. Budig Family Foundation)
Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon | 15 E. Eighth St., Cincinnati 45202
This captivating creation by John A. Ruthven memorializes what was once one of the most numerous bird species in the nation. In 1914, Martha lived out her final days at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and was the final surviving passenger pigeon. “John Ruthven was like a modern-day Audubon,” Houston says. “He just painted so much wildlife. He’s widely collected. Most Cincinnatians that you would stop in the street know him and his artwork.”

“Dreaming Blues” mural of Mamie Smith in Cincinnati (photo by J. Miles Wolf, supported by 2018 Adopt-an-Apprentice Campaign Contributors)
Dreaming Blues | 309 E. 13th St., Cincinnati 45202  
This dreamy depiction of Mamie Smith, the first-ever African American blues recording artist, was designed by Buffalo, New York-based painter Julia Bottoms. Smith made significant contributions to the American rhythm and blues sound and pushed past racial boundaries to make her mark in the industry. “That happened in Cincinnati, and she’s from Cincinnati,” Houston says. “We could do a whole series just on musical heritage and the amazing musicians that came from our city.” 

Visit artworkscincinnati.org for more 
information and a guide to the location of the many other murals throughout Cincinnati.