Not long ago, downtown Greensboro had culturally flatlined. The nighttime streets were empty save for lawyers and accountants with their faces in their phones. Bland, brown brick apartments and dystopian-gray high-rises dominated the downtown landscape.
Then Jeff Beck started No Blank Walls, a community-driven initiative that brought street art to Greensboro. Those stunning murals of blue-eyed children, fallen rappers and blooming flowers you’ve seen around the city? They wouldn’t be there without No Blank Walls.
Beck and community organizer Ryan Saunders founded the enterprise as, “a fun project,” in 2015. “We went to Richmond and some places that were more heavily involved with street art and just immersed ourselves in that world and met some of the artists, which was really cool,” Beck says. “We talked to them, and thought, ‘Why not here?’”
Beck specializes in what he calls ‘lowbrow’ or ‘urban pop’ street art—think playful, cartoonish and bright. It’s a far cry from his graphic design degree, but he’s been in the scene for a decade now and it’s still a cornerstone of his life.
“I just like to do fun stuff. I guess the day-to-day is so serious, the art is kind of the fun escape.”
Beck, a key figure in the local street art scene now returning from a six-month personal break, co-founded No Blank Walls in 2015 more as an experiment than anything else. It was an uphill battle getting Greensboro to accept boring brick walls suddenly becoming canvases; in fact, the project nearly fell apart before it got off the ground. The first mural, painted by the Art of Chase (an internationally-recognized street artist) at Duck Head on Elm Street, was gone within a month.
“They just decided to paint over it with a big Duck Head logo without really getting permission or anything like that,” Beck says.
The disappointment ended up a blessing in disguise. The controversy sparked city-wide interest in street art that still persists, four years later. “It was really about getting that first nudge and convincing people that it would be a good thing,” he says.
The murals also proved to be a boon for local businesses, something that was sorely needed downtown.
“We knew that it would residually affect all the businesses around it. So more traffic, more attention, more people are going to stop by your shops and restaurants,” Beck says.
Beck is glad that he and Saunders took the initiative and attempted to introduce the community to street art on a citywide scale. “We were the ones to go after these huge walls and get international artists to help kick start [it]. We have great local artists too, but we worked with [the international artists] a lot because we needed that name recognition to inject energy into it to get it started and go from there.”
Beck’s street art doesn’t stop at murals. The Greensboro Coliseum commissioned Beck to paint six new “Jeansboro” statues for the complex. They went up in March and included sculptures celebrating UNCG, NC A&T, the ACC, the Greensboro Swarm and more.
For Beck, the project was a grind that took months.
“I definitely bit off more than I could chew,” the artist says. “Each logo was about 30 coats of paint… and the paint just wouldn’t cooperate. There were definitely days where I was just throwing my paintbrush across the room.”
Beck isn’t afraid to mix his art and business. In March, he did some pieces for the grand opening of Winston Junction Market, a weekend farmer’s market in a building under renovation.
You might also recall his coffee shop/art gallery, Urban Grinders. Before it closed earlier this year, its java won awards and its art collection was one of the hottest in the city. Beck plans to revisit the concept sometime down the road, but nothing’s set in stone yet.
Beck has a grand vision for downtown: a true hub of art, business and fun. Now that Greensboro has made a name for itself, his dream seems realistic.
“We’ve worked really hard when I was there with Urban Grinders and No Blank Walls to help build the art scene up. There are a lot of other organizations that do stuff, but to me… I just want it to be more local business driven. I want it to be a destination for people to go and spend the day downtown just walking around to different art galleries or shops.”
For now, Beck is just trying to rediscover where he fits into a transient local street art scene. It’s been a challenging year for the artist, and a six-month absence is a long time. But he feels like he’s ready.
“Some of the newer stuff holds a little more meaning. It’s really the first time I’ve tried to put myself personally into some of my stuff,” Beck reflects. “I’m in a different mindset than I was, so I’m sure that’s going to affect my art and things like that. It’s really just seeing what the whole ‘me being in art’ thing looks like. It’s kind of up in the air; I’m trying to get my footing back and, unfortunately, as an artist, if you go away for a couple months, it’s almost like starting all over again. Which is bad but kind of good because you’ve got that push again, that motivation.”
He’s got two projects to help him along the way; Winston-Salem is commissioning pieces for this week’s First Friday event, and he is doing work for some businesses in Lexington, Beck’s hometown. You can keep up with his projects on his Instagram: @_nos_1977.