Pittsburgh has a vibrant arts scene that elevates local artists. Stroll through some of the city’s diverse neighborhoods to enjoy one of the most popular forms of artwork—street murals.
From the hidden alleys of Lawrenceville to the colorful streets of the North Side, Pittsburgh’s street art has become an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric. These captivating murals transform once-empty walls into captivating canvases that reflect the spirit, stories, and aspirations of the Steel City.
Whether depicting striking portraits, thought-provoking social commentary, or whimsical bursts of color, the street murals of Pittsburgh have turned the city into an open-air gallery.
Much of the street art in Pittsburgh was created by Kyle Holbrook, a local muralist, author, designer, filmmaker and the founder of the Moving the Lives of Kids (MLK) Community Mural Project.
Holbrook said his vision was to use public art to reach kids over the summer months, encouraging them to do positive community work when they were out of school.
“I grew up in Wilkinsburg and saw a lot of blight and gun violence,” he said. “I saw a need for something that could be impactful in the community.”
Not every mural he helps create is in a low-income neighborhood. Holbrook said he accepts a combination of requests from communities and community groups when deciding where to design his next mural.
MLK receives thousands of requests each year. Community centers and nonprofit organizations can sometimes qualify for grants to cover the costs. Otherwise, if it’s a private citizen or business, they must pay out of pocket for the work.
Before saying yes, Holbrook asks if the request meets the following criteria:
Is it in a high-visibility location?
Will it be impactful to the community?
Is it a deterrent to graffiti?
Is there an important message of awareness to spread in the community?
“I don’t just paint pretty pictures,” he said. “Every mural has a message, a theme. A mural becomes a voice for the community.”
One of the experiences that he recalls fondly is the mural project with students from the Pressley Ridge School for Autism. Completed during the summer and early fall of 2014, the mural is located at 100 Magee St across from the PPG Paints Arena.
Students, staff and family members from Pressley Ridge helped paint the mural, which celebrates both autism and the best Pittsburgh Penguins hockey players. Among the players featured in the mural are Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Mullen, Paul Coffey and Bryan Trottier. Puzzle pieces to denote autism are peppered throughout the mural, along with some children’s faces.
Kelly Weimer, Director of Autism Services for Pressley Ridge, said the mural project was impactful for the school community. To prepare for the project, MLK conducted some on-site art sessions with the students.
“We tried to include anyone who was interested in art making,” said Weimer. “MLK did the main parts of the mural, and our students supported them.”
Before they got started, MLK artists talked to Pressley Ridge to gain a better understanding of what autism is and how it affects the community.
Weimer said she remembers one student who thought it was amazing to be included in something that was very community-oriented.
“People on the autism spectrum are often excluded. To be able to contribute to something that was beautiful and that everyone would see meant a lot to her.”
With a background in art therapy, Weimer said she’s aware of how different people can have different impressions of the same piece of art. She appreciates the inclusiveness of art.
“Everybody is an artist. Everyone can contribute in some way,” she said. “Even people who don’t think they like art are often surprised how much they enjoy it when they realize it’s a way to give themselves a voice.”
Besides the Pens mural, Holbrook said among his other favorite past creations is the Roberto Clemente mural he created on the side of the Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville, completed in 2019.
“It was just named the best mural in Pittsburgh by UP Magazine,” he said.
Holbrook’s symbolic mural honoring Pittsburgh’s legendary playwright August Wilson on Centre Avenue in the Hill District is another of his favorites. When Denzel Washington won the Golden Globe as director for the movie “Fences,” which was written by Wilson, Holbrook provided a signed photo of the mural at the request of Washington’s staff.
“To me, it’s just really cool to know that Denzel Washington has a mural from Pittsburgh framed in his home somewhere,” he said.
The Mac Miller mural he created also holds a special place in his heart because of the relationship he had with the artist before his death.
He’s hard-pressed to name a favorite mural since each of them has a different meaning for him.
“If I had to say which is my favorite, I’d say it’s my next one,” Holbrook said. “That’s what Frank Lloyd Wright would say about his next building. I’m excited about my next project.”