One of D.C.’s best-known muralists, Aniekan Udofia, is taking his work in a new, conceptual direction. His past pieces have kept to a literal scope: the pro-statehood U Street NW mural of a gagged George Washington; the portraits of Chuck Brown, Bill Cosby, Donnie Simpson, and Barack Obama on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl; an image of Duke Ellington engulfed in swirling piano keys on his namesake building in West End.

“This is more like the next level,” he says of his latest work, a cool-toned, free-flowing image of an underwater woman on the north-facing wall of the William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center in Eastern Market. “My stuff now is more abstract.”

MuralsDC, a Department of Public Works program that commissions artwork for public walls that are repeat tagging targets, contacted Udofia in July with the assignment: a mural that incorporated the mystical movements of Cirque du Soleil, MuralsDC’s partner for the project, and the carefree, childlike joys of the swimming pool. “Graffiti is like raw calligraphy; you change the look of the letter without losing the letter,” he says. “In this piece, I’ve changed the concept just enough without losing the concept.” Like any piece of fantastical art, this one’s open to interpretation—just don’t call it a mermaid.

The vines around the woman’s torso form a hoop, a calling card from the circus acts of Cirque du Soleil, which brought trapeze artists and face-painters to the mural’s unveiling on July 31. They’re also Udofia’s way of representing the Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates Rumsey: If you look closely, you can see the DPR acronym in the leaves.

“A lot of kids think she’s a mermaid,” Udofia says of the mural’s subject. “She’s not. She used to have legs, but I took them out.” He kept the swimming reference more subtle with bubbles and the waves of her hair.

Until Udofia saw the Rumsey wall for the first time, after he’d begun his sketch (“It was much bigger than I’d thought,” he says), he didn’t know that the D.C. flag in the swimmer’s hair would line up with the real-life flag on the wall.

All MuralsDC projects are done with aerosol paint, part of an effort to legitimize graffiti as an art form. When Udofia joined the program in 2009, he had to learn to use spray paint for the first time, taking lessons from YouTube videos and local graffiti artists. He still starts his murals out with house paint, then adds dimension with spray cans.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery