Q&A with world-famous street artist Arlin Graff, painting a new mural in downtown Fort Wayne

If you have a conversation with Arlin (Ar-lean) Graff, you might not realize you’re speaking with a world-famous artist.

Immediately kind and friendly, he speaks with an inviting tone and a hint of an accent.

“You’ll have to talk slowly because I don’t speak English very well,” Graff says. Arlin Graff

Born in the small countryside town of Tatuí in Brazil, Graff never formally learned the English language. Instead, he picked it up on the streets—literally—as he was doing graffiti art and murals in cities across the U.S. and other English-speaking countries.

Over the past two decades, Graff has developed his signature style, which often depicts animals in motion, using bright colors and fragmented shapes influenced by his childhood. Today, his murals can be found in some of the world’s art meccas, from São Paulo, Brazil, to New York and Los Angeles. But some of Graff’s favorite cities to share his art with are places like his hometown—smaller, humble communities that might not have access to world-famous artists and art cultures.
 
These are the places where Graff feels as though his work is seen and appreciated and reaches the eyes of kids, like himself, who might not consider that they, too, could make a living from their art someday.

This summer, Shep and Wendy Moyle, the owners of Shindigz party supplies and its global headquarters in downtown Fort Wayne, have commissioned Graff to paint a mural that will wrap the south and east façade of their building at 919 S Harrison St.

World-famous muralist Arlin Graff begins his mural on the Shindigz building at 919 South Harrison St. in Downtown Fort Wayne.

Graff began work on Aug. 10 and will complete the project by Aug. 18. The Downtown Improvement District (DID) encourages the public to visit the mural site during the installation to watch Graff work.

The Moyles were connected to Graff via Art This Way, a program of the DID. Since launching in 2016, Art This Way has commissioned and conducted 21 grand-scale, public art projects on private property downtown. 

On Wednesday, August 18, Graff’s work will be unveiled with a block party dedication event from 5-8 p.m. on site, featuring live music, a photo booth, an artist chat, and more. This event is free and open to the public.

We sat down with Graff to learn more about his signature style, life as a traveling artist, and his mural in Fort Wayne.

A mural by Arlin Graff.


IFW: Tell us how you got into doing global street art and mural projects.

AG: I was curious about street art from a young age. My dad owned a woodshop in the small town of Tatuí, in countryside of São Paulo, and we didn’t have very many toys growing up, so I would often play with things from his shop, electronics and wood blocks, putting things together and then dismantling them again.

When I was a teenager, I used to see a lot of trains with graffiti near where I lived, and I started painting trains myself. From that, I got a few mural projects, and in 2007, I graduated with a degree in industrial design.

Soon after, I moved to São Paulo, where I worked as an art director in various advertising agencies. Then I started traveling and doing murals in many cities around the world.

It’s been a very organic process.

IFW: Tell us about your style and the piece you will be doing in Fort Wayne.

AG: My pieces often use fragmented shapes and bright colors to depict animals in motion.

I’ve had my style for about 20 years now. As an artist, your work is always changing in some ways, but there are certain elements that make it distinct.

My style is a type of deconstructionism, which draws from the influence of my childhood in the woodshop, assembling and dissembling blocks, and as well as my experience in the digital side of art and advertising, using tools like photoshop.

In Fort Wayne, I’ll be doing a piece in this style, and it will be an animal.

A mural by Arlin Graff.

IFW: How many murals have you done in cities around the world?

AG: I’ve been on the road for about 10 years, so I’ve lost count of how many murals I’ve done total. But it’s a lot.

IFW: What brought you to Fort Wayne?

AG: Alex Hall of Art This Way knew a downtown business owner who was looking to commission a mural. So she reached out to me to get me to submit a proposal, and I worked with Art This Way and the building owners to design the space.

IFW: Have you been to Fort Wayne before?

AG: I have never been to Fort Wayne, so I don’t what to expect beyond what I’ve heard briefly from Art This Way. But I like coming into cities with no expectations, and then observing the culture when I get there.

Artists tend to be observers, in many ways, and that’s definitely something that I enjoy about being a traveling muralist. I like to see different cities firsthand and to experience living in them for a while.

I’m currently working near Cleveland, Ohio, and I’ve done murals in many cities both big and small around the world. It’s always a great experience to go into a community I’ve never visited before and to see what that place is like.

World-famous muralist Arlin Graff begins his mural on the Shindigz building at 919 South Harrison St. in Downtown Fort Wayne.

Every city is different; every project is different.

I like working in smaller communities, in particular. In cities with more people, the community tends to be used to seeing murals and artists, and they don’t always notice you when you’re there. But in smaller cities, the people really recognize and appreciate your work.

I grew up in small town in Brazil, and I’ve done work there before, and I’ve loved seeing people’s reaction to it. They would watch me work and say things like, “That’s so cool,” or “Thank you for bringing art to the neighborhood.”

It’s amazing to see how street art can change a community. It’s amazing that places like Fort Wayne are able to bring international artists into their communities—people who have different backgrounds and experiences that they can share with the city.

IFW: What reactions do you hope your mural in Fort Wayne will inspire?

AG: When people see my work in Fort Wayne, I hope they feel energized. My work is colorful, and it depicts animals, so I would assume they would feel happy and excited when they see it, but we’ll see! I’m excited to see the reactions.

World-famous muralist Arlin Graff begins his mural on the Shindigz building at 919 South Harrison St. in Downtown Fort Wayne.

IFW: What would you say is the benefit of having public art in cities?

AG: Public art exposes more people to the value of art as a cultural asset and a career path.

I have worked in many cities where murals are going up, and I hope that when kids see that happening, it might make them want to have a career in the arts someday. It might help them realize they don’t have to do the same thing their parents do or what they’ve been exposed to. They can create something different.

My family never had much growing up. My family still doesn’t have the ability to travel the world like I have. They haven’t had access to these same opportunities that my art has afforded me.

My life changed in an amazing way when I became an artist. I’ve gotten to see so many global cultures and try foods and meet people. I would love to share these experiences with my family and with others. 

One of the hardest parts of being a traveling artist is that I don’t get to see my family in Brazil very much. But I do have my own family now in the U.S. I have a wife and a baby, and we are so thankful for all of the opportunities that art has given us.

I believe art can save people—in many ways.

See Arlin Graff in Fort Wayne

Graff will be working on his mural from Aug. 10-18 at 919 S. Harrison St. The Downtown Improvement District (DID) encourages the public to visit the mural site during the installation to watch Graff work.

On Wednesday, August 18, Graff’s work will be unveiled with a free, public block party dedication event from 5-8 p.m. on site, featuring live music, a photo booth, an artist chat, and more.

This story is made possible by funding from the Downtown Improvement District.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.