Winnipeg artist trying to make downtown back streets safer with wildlife murals

A Winnipeg artist begins a new project to beautify downtown back streets.

Multidisciplinary artist Nereo Zorro, who has lived in Mexico for the past two years, recently returned to Winnipeg and began his project on Langside Street’s back alley.

“I really wanted to use this time that I’m here to push for beautification of public spaces. The back lanes in particular, because I think that’s a space that’s not always recognized or used,” he said.

His plan is to paint 37 murals across Canada, specifically targeting the back alleys of streets to bring a sense of safety to neighborhoods. Zorro plans to feature wildlife in this series – he said he was inspired by fellow artist Kal Barteski and her series Back Alley Arctic.

“I wanted to highlight the wildlife in the world. I care deeply about my environment and the connection we have with nature,” he said.

Zoro’s first piece was a fox mural in a garage across from the Furby Tot Lot. As he was painting, he said he heard people screaming in the distance and saw people rummaging through the trash cans.

“It may be, it may seem [like] a rough neighborhood. I think maybe that’s it. It was kind of hard to see.”

Nereo Zorro’s fox mural, which can be seen in the back alley off Langside Street, was the first of his new wildlife series. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

He said the homeowner felt a mural in the space would benefit the community by making it feel more family-centric and family-safe, and Zorro was on board. Especially since he had a personal connection to the area.

“I grew up on Furby Street in the early ’90s. It was my first home, and revisiting that space was kind of nostalgic,” he said.

Indira Rampersad’s garage on Westminster Avenue was the location for Zoro’s next play, which features rabbits. She said the idea came from her son Nathaniel. But little did she know that Zoro would draw rabbits representing her and her son.

“That was a real treat because it reminded me of my relationship with Nathaniel all the time,” Rampersad said.

It was also special for Zorro – he said a few minutes after making the first outline he saw two rabbits in a similar position to those in the mural.

Massage therapist Indira Rampersad is the owner of one of the Winnipeg houses painted by Nereo Zorro. The rabbits were her son Nathaniel’s idea. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Rampersad, who has been a Zorro fan for a long time, said she first came across his project in a social media post he created. She contacted him and they discussed the play. They settled on an artist’s fee and he spent two days painting their garage. For Rampersad, that was not a question. She really believes in his new project and wanted to support him in any way she could.

“I wish for his work to spread around the world,” she said.

Rampersad believes in bringing nature more into the city. She said it could be a way for people to reconnect with nature and with each other.

“Maybe people will want to spend more time together and be outside together,” Rampersad said. “Maybe people will start taking each other out to dinner and helping each other with the yard work. Or they work together to clean up a place. Maybe something like that.”

Urban geography professor Jino Distasio said that public art, like Zorro’s back alley murals, sends out the message that downtown Winnipeg has a rich history that needs to be experienced.

“When artists give back to the community and in that way, it really means people care about them. They care about their communities and they care about the way we perceive our city and not just our front streets but our side streets too,” Distasio said.

Jino Distasio, professor of urban geography, said the city of Winnipeg needs to start bringing art into the streets and communities and making them more welcoming. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

He said the perception that downtown Winnipeg is unsafe is something the city has long struggled with. But he thinks Winnipeggers like him, who spend most of their time downtown, feel it’s a great place.

“Experience the history, the culture, the streets, the shops and all of the other little experiences that make Winnipeg a truly unique cultural expression of places,” said Distasio.

Zorro said he feels art heals and that is an important part of his project.

“It’s not the band-aid fix for everything. But I think the arts allow us to touch a deeper space within ourselves and learn more about who we are,” he said.

“I think art is an amazing vehicle for social change.”

Zorro plans to paint a mural in Hamilton, Calgary and various locations in British Columbia this summer.

Making the back streets in the city center safer with art

Winnipeg artist Nereo Zorro is launching a new downtown beautification project. His plan is to paint 37 murals across Canada, specifically targeting the back alleys of streets to bring a sense of safety to neighborhoods.

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