Against a vibrant yellow background and amid bands of green, red and blue, the faces of President Barack Obama, comedian Bill Cosby and rocker Chuck Brown are splashed across U Street-landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The work is part of MuralsDC, an organization funded by the D.C. Department of Public Works and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to create public art around the District. The organization has painted murals across walls in parks, schools and other public spaces. The U Street mural is the organization’s seventh and final work of the summer.
Aniekan Udofia, the mural’s artist, worked closely with the Ali family – owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl since its founding in 1958 – to come up with the perfect subject matter to display on the wall of Ben Ali Way, Virginia Ali said.
After hearing ideas from private artists, MuralsDC approached the family with a project in mind and the Alis jumped on board.
“They gave us an opportunity to select what we wanted,” Ali said. “It was just a ‘Go, go, go’ – a win-win for everybody.”
Ali said all the personalities on the wall hold importance in the history of Ben’s Chili Bowl. Cosby, whose voice greets customers on the chili shop's answering machine, is a friend of the Alis and has frequented the restaurant since 1959. Obama’s first visit to D.C. after the 2008 election began with a trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl, attracting national attention.
Donnie Simpson, a radio announcer whose portrait also appears on the wall, began and ended his radio career at Ben’s with his first-ever field show and final retirement performances held at the eatery.
Singer Chuck Brown, the legendary “Grandfather of Go-Go”, was also a good friend of the Ali family. Brown passed away in May.
“Go-go [music] will live forever in this city, and we all know who will forever be connected with go-go in this District of Columbia and this nation, and it is Chuck Brown,” Mayor Vincent Gray said.
Udofia has been painting for MuralsDC since D.C. Council member Jim Graham began the program in 2007 and said the project began a month ago with a drawing, while the painting part only took five days.
He added that his greatest challenge was realistically portraying such well-known figures, especially ones linked so closely to both D.C. and Ben’s.
“This combines a lot of very famous men who are on the mural, and that’s very special, but it also highlights a restaurant that we’re extraordinarily proud of,” Graham said. “If there was an alley in Washington where you would want to have your portrait, this has got to be the alley.”
The goal of MuralsDC is to reach the community through art and to discourage people from marking public spaces with illegal graffiti.
“Every time we painted over the graffiti it provided a blank canvas for people to put up more graffiti. Some of it was gang tagging, some of it was very objectionable and so the thought was that if we find murals, people are not likely to score up the murals, and that theory has proved absolutely accurate,” Graham said.
The program, Graham said, is funded by only a few thousand dollars a year and pays off financially as well, as the city does not need to repaint areas with murals.
Ultimately though, Udofia said the murals are meant to bring people together.
“This idea of making murals around the city is an amazing idea, because not only does it give the artist work, it’s beautifying the place,” Udofia said. “These murals always tie people together that no matter the denomination, no matter the gender, no matter what race – people can talk about this mural from an art standing.”