World-Renowned Street Painter: Michael W. Kirby

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Each Thursday we try to get to know different DC-area residents by walking up to total strangers, introducing ourselves, and asking the same question: “What are you thankful for?” Whether people want to give a shout out to an Express worker they pass each morning by the Metro, give thanks that we’re finally falling into autumn, or are madly in love and want to shout it from a mountaintop, we’ve found that each answer reveals a telling detail about who we are as a city and how we live.

This week, we ran into Michael, a street artist from Baltimore, outside the National Portrait Gallery. Michael is the first American to have earned the title of Master Street Painter in each of the major European street painting festivals, and has been called “the best street painter in the world” by the Los Angeles Times. 

“I’m thankful for the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery—they’re the ones paying the bills for what I do. And I’m thankful that I get paid to do what I love.

I got my start doing street painting when I was living in Italy 20 years ago. I was hungry, needed a job, and I saw these street artists in Florence and Venice who were creating chalk drawings and making tips and I said, “Hell, I can do that!” My first drawing was a copy of a Raphael. I made $30, but it was enough for me to stay in a hotel that night and that’s all I could ask for.

This piece I’m working on now is for the National Portrait Gallery’s Chalk4Peace Family Festival. We’ve been working since Tuesday and will keep working until Friday night, so that it can be finished for Saturday. Like all my work, this will be an interactive piece, with rock sculptures and additional 3-D elements. I kind of started the whole idea of interactive, 3-D street painting, which comes from when I used to work in set design and worked with a lot of forced perspective. On Saturday, there will be a photo booth set up, and people can interact with the piece and make their own chalk drawings.

I like that about what I do—creating public art pieces as opposed to studio work where it’s just me and the painting. I’ve always liked guerilla marketing and getting people on the street involved. My work gets people to question themselves. I want to see what the public thinks about what I do.

I’m so very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’ve been drawing all my life and copying comic books since I was a kid. There are so many talented artists out there who can’t make money making their work. DC has better funding for the arts compared to Baltimore. I’m thankful for such a good relationship with the Smithsonian. I’m just blessed that I’ve been doing this for the past 20 years and supporting a family.”
—Michael William Kirby, Baltimore