From Tags to Riches: Towles received a 0,000 grant to create permanent graffiti and murals.
From Tags to Riches: Towles received a 0,000 grant to create permanent graffiti and murals. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Visual and graffiti artist Kelly Towles has scored an enviable gig. He’s been commissioned to do the work he loves for the next month—which, typically, is illegal. The problem is he doesn’t know who to thank.

“I got nominated by someone for this grant. I don’t know who,” says Towles.

Towles, 31, received a $20,000 grant from the Greater Washington Creative Community Initiative, an arts pollination foundation that does not consider unsolicited proposals. After he received word of his anonymous nomination last fall, Towles submitted his formal proposal, which was later accepted: “The Grate Project,” permanent graffiti murals on various alley walls and roll-down security shutters near his Shaw home.

“I didn’t want to do the basic thing everyone else would do: make 15 paintings for a show,” says Towles. “I think that’s a waste of money.” Grant or no grant, Towles says, artists already have an incentive to create art for formal gallery shows—and he wanted to make more creative use of his unexpected opportunity.

Towles is one of the few artists who might sip white wine at exhibition openings by day and tag railroad cars by night. His fine artwork—characterized by cartoonish imps, loons, boxers, peg legs, and ravens—is represented by Adamson Editions, which has a posh gallery space at 1515 14th St. NW. Still, Towles remains reluctant to have his photograph printed, should he be recognized for his nefarious nighttime activities.

Candidates considered for the grant are asked to find sponsorship from a local nonprofit. Towles asked Transformer Gallery to sign with him. “I’ve worked with Transformer on a number of things,” he says. “They’ve tried to support me as an artist; I’ve tried to support them as an art organization.” Transformer will keep 15 percent of the grant to cover administration and promotional costs; the gallery has secured two of the three sites, drafted letters of agreement, and will organize a youth-education component, which is required by the grant.

“I’ve been working with Kelly for the last five years, and I’ve been a strong believer in his work since the beginning of his career,” says Victoria Reis, director of Transformer. “It just feels full-circle with him, being able to present these full public art projects.”

Next weekend, Towles begins his first project: painting over the security shutter in front of the entrance to One World Fitness. The following weekend, he’ll paint a mural in Blagden Alley, on the side of the building that formerly housed Signal 66 Gallery. His final project will be the façade of the Black Cat, which Towles regularly frequents. Towles is documenting the project with video and photography, which he plans to debut at a party there in October.

The grant might lend his work weight and legitimacy, but Towles says he realizes the street may react differently. Asked how long he thinks his murals will stand before they are, in turn, graffitied, Towles says, “There’s two sides of me. One side says, ‘I hope cats bomb it up, so I can go back and fix it up.’ Then there’s the other aspect: I know a bunch of the ’heads in this city—I can say, ‘Hey, I’m hitting these three spots.’”

Will warning his graffiti artist cohorts be enough to keep his works untouched? Towles isn’t positive. “There’s always knuckleheads I don’t know,” he says.