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Iconic Houston Street Artist Goes From Tagging Parisian Trains to Painting Whole Foods’ Walls

The Unlikely Saga or Mr. D and a Midtown Luxury Transformation

BY // 05.09.19

One of Texas’ most celebrated street artists has just wrapped another high-profile project. This time there’s residential real estate involved. Luxury apartments and a new Whole Foods will share a mural by this talent, one of Houston’s most iconic aerosol artists.

Cue Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau.

Street Scene

It’s Friday afternoon during the last week of April, and Midtown Houston is clearing out. But one intersection is actually stopping traffic — and luring pedestrians too. That’s where a new luxury, amenity-loaded complex, Pearl Marketplace at Midtown is rising.

But besides the prospect of moving to one of Pearl’s 264 future units when leasing begins this June, what’s drawing motorists and passers by is its vibrant, pixilated mural bearing cool paint drips that extends down the side of a 70 x 20 feet swatch of Smith Street. The placement is unique as the mural adorns the back wall of the city’s newest Whole Foods (anticipated opening, first quarter of 2020).

You don’t need to be a prognosticator to know this art wall is expected to be as iconic as its creator’s previous interventions into the Houston streetscape.

Mr. D and filmmaker Neiman Catley on the final day wrapping “Pearl Paint Wall”
Mr. D and filmmaker Neiman Catley on the final day of “Pearl Paint Wall.” (Photo by the author)

This prime corner is where the action is going down when I stop by. Boileau, with his three workers, one a visiting street artist in from France, are putting the finishing touches on Pearl Paint Wall, the 2.0 edition of the Biscuit Paint Wall. (The latter, commissioned in 2014 for the home design and bedding store’s Montrose facade, has become such an emblem of Houston that it was featured on the cover of United Airlines’ magazine, Hemispheres, last May.)

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This afternoon will be for the final punch list of a major commission from the Boileau’s mural company, Eyeful Art. which has spanned months, and promises to propel him even further into the limelight. As the final hours of Friday segue into evening, an impromptu wrap party ensues; Mr. D invites his crew and a patron pal to his office/townhouse nearby.

Veuve is popped, and the mood is chill and celebratory.

An impromptu wrap party for "Pearl Paint Wall" at Mr. D's crib (Photo by the author)
An party for “Pearl Paint Wall” at Mr. D’s crib (Photo by the author)

Boileau has come a long way from illegal train tagging as a 14-year-old graffiti artist in his native France, where spray-painting railroad cars often got him in a lot of trouble. He hints his move to Texas in 1998 was partially due to brushes with the law. By 2000, Mr. D. (The name was adopted, he laughingly says, because “I was a D student,” but we sense there’s more to the story.)

His ground-floor office speaks to the professionalism of a serious studio practice; entering through a garage adorned with all manner of aerosol action of his own and fellow graffiti-ists, a phalanx of sophisticated graphic design equipment greets us. Upstairs, a swank kitchen becomes witness to our gathering whose guests include filmmaker and Mr. D documentarian, Neiman Catley.

The scene manifests both sides of Boileau, which he strives to maintain — the reliable artist who delivers commissions on time and on budget, and impressively has given a TEDx Talk and been profiled in the European street art magazine Stuart, as well as a fearless talent who’s able to still be on the edge.

Looking at his crew, he proudly notes about one of the young painters, “This evening he’ll be out tagging trains,” sounding nostalgic for his own beginnings.

And in the coming weeks, we’ll take you inside a Mr. D project in West Texas, which gives new meaning to taking street art to new heights — as well as one, which carries considerable physical risk.

Beyond Biscuit in Messaging

"Biscuit Paint Wall" from 2014 came to embody Houston and is Boileau's artistic calling card.
“Biscuit Paint Wall” from 2014 came to embody Houston and is Boileau’s artistic calling card.

Unlike Biscuit, with its drippy, feel-good abstraction, Pearl Paint Wall is an ambitious mural with a social message that seems particularly prescient for our time.

The artwork is integral to one of the latest high-end residential mid-rises offered by national developer Morgan, Inc. Morgan’s own history hints at why they commissioned Pearl Paint Wall.

Headquartered in Houston, it’s founder, Bill Morgan, is a Holocaust survivor and pillar of the Jewish community whose been honored at Holocaust Museum Houston. The company Morgan founded from a modest start with apartments and duplexes in post-war Houston went on to become a empire of mid-rise, mixed-use, and high-rise developments that spans 10 states; the Morgan website lists the impressive figure “21,000 units at a total cost of $3.2 billion over the past 30 years.”

For its new Pearl Marketplace at Midtown, Morgan was mindful of messaging. Without getting into politics, its new Mr. D paint wall speaks uniquely to our time, and place — Houston as the metropolis that is America’s face of diversity. Executive vice president – investments and development, Philip Morgan, grandson of founder Bill Morgan, tells PaperCity on how and why the art component came into being.

Morgan says in a phone call, “It’s important to us that our developments feel local and we’ve been working in Midtown for a long time. This is our fourth project in Midtown, and we’re about to start a fifth later this year. And with the new Whole Foods, we knew this development would be integral to the Midtown community.”

And why Mr. D? The street artist and the development VP met about five years ago, when Boileau inquired about doing a rogue mural for the previous building on site — an unprepossessing office for the Social Security Administration — before it was demolished to make way for the new mid-rise complex. Neighborhood geography also came into play.

“Sebastien actually lives and works in Midtown, so it was a natural fit when it came to picking a local artist in the community to work on this mural,” Morgan says. “His work and track record also speak for themselves.”

While the Morgan firm was involved in collaborating on the concept, they trusted Boileau’s creative vision, and were able to surrender control.

“We wanted a little bit of say, but really he’s the artist so we gave him a lot of leeway,” Morgan says. “We talked about a couple of things together but it was important that he got excited about the idea and the finished product.”

Deciphering Pearl Paint Wall

Morgan tells PaperCity about how the final imagery — five pixelated faces taken from actual people involved in the building of the new complex — came into being. “One of the thoughts leading up to it was since Sebastien lives adjacent to the site, he mentioned he never really noticed how much work and how many people it takes to put together a building like this. And day after day seeing hundreds of people working on the job site, [he saw] how many years it takes, and how many people from developers to laborers and the diversity of the project team, which in a way is representative of Houston and especially Midtown,” he says. “That was pretty exciting for him.

“The thing that resonated with us as well was the construction industry — they often don’t get enough credit for the work they do, and frequently they move from one job to the next without getting a chance to see their finished product.

So [the idea was] to showcase construction workers from this project that I think are representative of the diversity of the construction industry as a whole. It was an exciting opportunity to show our appreciation for the construction industry and the work they do for the entire city.”

Unsung Heroes and Heroines

Five workers who represent the faces of Houston's diverse contracting industry appear in pixelated form on "Pearl Paint Wall."
Five workers who represent the faces of Houston’s diverse contracting industry appear in pixelated form on “Pearl Paint Wall.”

The people now preserved for posterity on Pearl Paint Wall — one with a particularly poignant story — are telling.

“One of the faces is Helena Finley,” Morgan says. “She is our construction project manager and an immigrant from South Africa. She is overseeing this project, and it’s been a very large undertaking. Hurricane Harvey happened in the middle of the project so that added a challenge to an already complicated job. She’s a hero of ours in our construction group.

“Another is Frank Leija. He’s the superintendent, so he’s been living and breathing the project on site from the beginning through the end. Not an easy task by any stretch.

“And Shawndra Silas. She works at our corporate office as an admin for the construction team and really does a little bit of everything. Her positive attitude in the corporate office and with the construction office is contagious. Unfortunately, she was recently involved in a fatal car accident and is currently in the hospital. We are all thinking about her and her family and wishing her well in her recovery. She hasn’t yet seen the finished mural.

“The last two are subcontractors who worked on the construction site. One is with a concrete company, and the other works for a metal-stud contractor.”

Mr. D Weighs In

Sebastien "Mr. D" Boileau (right) and a French street-art colleague on the final day of creating "Pearl Paint Wall" (Photo by the author)
Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau (right) and a French street-art colleague on the final day of creating “Pearl Paint Wall” (Photo by the author)

During our site visit — and while perched on a scissor lift inspecting the final color grid of Pearl Paint Wall, Boileau shares his thoughts about the concept of street art and his trajectory as one of Houston’s principal actors in the graffiti-scene.

“What’s interesting about public art, street art, murals, is that you can do the biggest projects in the smallest towns — we’re currently working in Fort Stockton, on one of the largest murals we’ve ever done, three months on site, 12,000 square feet— to the biggest things in the biggest town, for the biggest companies,” he says.

“This is Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, and the Morgan group, which is a national real estate company.”

By the Numbers

Seventy-two shades and 3,200 pixelated squares comprise "Biscuit Paint Wall."
Seventy-two shades and 3,200 pixelated squares comprise “Biscuit Paint Wall.”

On the scissor lift from one of its lower settings, I could see the colorful grids — some 72 different shades —which are extremely abstract close up, but gradually assemble into a series of five portraits visible from the curb.

Mr. D says of his signature, meticulous process, which for this project extended over a year and half, “You’re looking at about 3,200 pixels. They are hand-painted, and each pixel is also color coated by hand on a computer — there’s no software that can do this.”

Portraits of a Place

Boileau says while contemplating the completion of his last addition to Texas’ streetscape, “What this mural is going to be about — a bright, energetic city, colorful, diverse. But there’s a layer, of what you see, and it’s cool visually, but when you go through the layers of paint there’s a much deeper connection.”

A year and a half of planning, meetings, and creating went into making Midtown's latest street art piece.
A year and a half of planning, meetings, and creating went into making Midtown’s latest street art piece.

“And that’s the kind of connection I have with the city. It’s sort of like how the city operates. Houston’s a city of locals, even though we’re huge, but when you go out you see it. If you’ve been long enough, you know people and people know you. We don’t have that high tourism that maybe Vegas or Paris or other markets have, but it’s an interesting angle [of what we have going for us].

Mr. D says of initial reactions, and the parade of selfies snapped streetside and onlookers taking in Pearl Paint Wall’s imagery, “It’s a cool project and people love it… it’s place-making, it’s becoming a gathering spot, that’s why it’s good to name them. Like the Biscuit Paint Wall on Westheimer.”

For this particular block of Smith at Midtown, the artist says, “We can tell the interest here is growing. They even installed LED lights here so it like explodes at night. Aesthetically it’s very nice.

“It’s not just another street anymore, or just another apartment complex. It has a personality. It’s very exciting to be a part of that.”

As he and his crew check the last elements of the pixelated grid and gaze at its five faces, Mr. D says, “People are going to rent apartments based on price, sure. But when prices are competitive, what else is there?”

“The amenities, and art are something that make people feel good, it’s a big selling point for them.”

“Art is good for the economy. Art is good for your business. When you look at the price tag for this project, we’re at 0.001% of the budget, but this is the 0.001% you talk about, that you remember.”

Taking on Michelangelo

Mr. D’s epic “Préservons la Création,” 2014, at 2819 Fannin St., celebrates its fifth year with a street-art fête Friday, May 31.
Mr. D’s epic “Préservons la Création,” 2014, at 2819 Fannin St., celebrates its fifth year with a street-art fête Friday, May 31.

Up next for this intrepid street artist whose clearly taken a book out of Warhol’s volume mashing up art and commerce is a happening set for Friday, May 31. The occasion celebrates Boileau’s beyond epic Préservons la Création. The monumental mural riffing on Michelangelo’s creation of Adam marks its fifth anniversary. The free event goes down at 2819 Fannin Street, coinciding with the launch of Midtown’s annual Children’s Festival.

“The concept of this mural is the idea of preservation of art and grafitti, for generations to come,” Mr. D tells PaperCity.

Find even more details here.

Images courtesy eyefulart.com unless noted.

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