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Photo by Ash Daniel
Mickael Broth stands in front of one of three murals he has created for Mellow Mushroom in Carytown.
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Photo by Ash Daniel
Broth at the opening of "Slice of Life," his show at 9WG Studios in September
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Photo by William Pickett
Mickael Broth in Carytown painting the wall at Mellow Mushroom
In the middle of a cold night in February 2004, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a “junky, painted-up, winter jacket” stolen from a thrift store, Mickael Broth was leaning over the side of a CSX railroad bridge across I-295 in Hanover County, using a 12-foot extension pole to paint what was probably the largest, most brazen graffiti tag ever seen in the Richmond area.
Over three hours, Broth, then a 21-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University art student, and a friend painted their signatures in 12-foot-high letters across the bridge, which is near the Meadowbridge Road exit. Broth’s tag, “REFUSE,” was roughly 50 feet wide, spanning three lanes of traffic. His friend’s tag, “SEEK,” was nearly as large.
“The next morning,” Broth, now 32, recalls, “we woke up pretty early and drove out, and you kind of come around on a curve, and you see the bridge about a half-mile away. We were both in shock, like, ‘Look at what we did.’ ”
They weren’t the only ones who noticed.
WWBT NBC12 reported on the graffiti, filming it from above with the station’s traffic helicopter.
Six weeks later, on March 31, 2004, at 7 a.m., Broth and his future wife, Brionna Nomi, were woken by pounding on the door of his Franklin Street apartment. “Richmond city police, open the door!” City police officers entered, guns drawn, followed by officers from the Hanover County Sheriff’s office, VCU Police and CSX railroad police.
Living up to his graffiti signature, Broth refused to give up his friend but admitted to his own role. “It may have been a stupid move on my part in hindsight,” he says, “but there was a lot of evidence in my apartment just sitting in plain sight that … linked me to a lot of what I was doing … like lots of spray paint, bucket paint, rollers, stickers, posters that had the tag name on it, REFUSE.” (The word was taken from a phrase he and his friends in high school tried to popularize as a prank: “Refuse to be smart.”)
Broth grew up in Springfield in Northern Virginia, where he was arrested as a teen for another graffiti offense. As a college student, he painted his tag from Boston to Miami, sometimes outrunning police cars and helicopters for his trouble. His parents are both longtime arts supporters, but they sparred with him over the graffiti. (His mother, GeorgeAnn Broth, is president of the volunteer board of directors for Richmond’s 5th Wall Theatre company. His father, Stuart, is a dentist in Powhatan.)
“We had plenty of arguments and them telling me I was going to wind up in jail and me telling them that they didn’t know what they were talking about, and plenty of other people my age had way worse problems, like doing drugs, whatever. I made up whatever excuse I could to justify it. … I just found it fun. It was exciting to climb up a fire escape in the middle of the night and get away with something you’re not supposed to.”
Ultimately, Broth was charged with six felonies and two misdemeanors for various instances of property damage by graffiti in Hanover and Richmond. (One was for vandalism of a state-owned parking lot. “I painted where 95 comes around … and you can see the parking lot, and I had painted white lines that kind of mimicked the parking-lot lines that spelled out [REFUSE] in big letters.”)
“There were multiple court appearances and indictments,” Broth continues. “The whole process just seems to go on forever, until you’re like, ‘Just lock me up already, let’s get this over with.’ ” Taking a plea agreement, Broth had his felonies converted to misdemeanors and served nine months in jail, half in Hanover, half in Richmond.
Ten years later, Broth is a respected working artist who’s known for his murals, which can be seen decorating high-profile locations in Richmond such as Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers in Carytown, the Canal Walk and the former GRTC bus depot at Cary and Robinson streets, on which he painted a nearly three-story-tall, white-bearded, green-skinned wizard mixing a crystalline potion. He and his wife, Brionna, a reading specialist at Elizabeth Redd Elementary School, married in 2006 and live in a tidy brick home in North Side, tastefully adorned with an eclectic collection of art.
“There’s a sense of humor and a playfulness” in Broth’s work, says Carl Janes, an Atlanta-based artist who works as a freelance creative director for the Mellow Mushroom chain and selected Broth to paint the Carytown restaurant. “I enjoy his colors, and he really has a mastery of line work.”
As a fellow muralist, Janes says, “I think once you get used to going big … not only do you get a knack for it, it becomes almost an obsession. It’s just so wonderful to paint huge. It’s quite exhilarating.”
After his release from jail, Broth went on to earn his degree in painting and printmaking from VCU in 2005. He began exhibiting his work in gallery shows inspired by his jail experiences that he titled “Gated Community”; this would later become the title of his three-volume, self-published memoir about his life as a self-described “graffiti vandal” and his subsequent incarceration. While he was an artist in residence at Artisphere in Arlington, the Washington Post interviewed him about his experiences. In 2008, he received a fellowship award from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
A tattooed skateboarder who sports a shaggy mop of black hair and an air of bemusement, Broth is also known for his volunteer work, says his friend, Ted Elmore, a partner at Hunton & Williams law firm who has written about Broth for RVA Magazine and edited Broth’s memoirs. “He’s got a good eye for lots of things, especially for the merging of arts and culture and community,” Elmore says.
Elmore is especially impressed by how Broth has mentored 14-year-old home-schooled artist Jarred Barr. Broth invited Barr to help him with a mural, and the two have worked together on other projects such as a live-painting event set to hip-hop music at Gallery5.
“Mickael’s definitely helped me a lot with tips and tricks and things, and he’s definitely a big influence on my art style personally, but he’s also helped kids through ART 180 and … at the Petersburg Area Art League,” Barr says. “It’s not just me that he’s influenced; there’s a lot
“He’ll probably be a force to reckon with at some point, I’m sure,” Broth says of Barr.
Broth has also stayed in touch with Dave Klisz, the Hanover detective who tracked him down, and the two have developed a mutual respect. Klisz read Broth’s memoir to better understand the mindset of graffiti artists.
“I could tell he had serious artistic talent,” Klisz says. “I’ve seen some of the work he’s done just by driving throughout the Fan. … It was nice to see how he changed his behavior from an adolescent to a professional artist. You don’t get to see that too often in police work. It was rewarding. That’s the whole point: The word ‘arrest’ means to stop … and he obviously learned from it. … It worked in his case.”
Broth’s next goal is a project he calls “Welcoming Walls,” through which he is recruiting artists to paint legal murals on walls visible from the interstates leading into Richmond.
“It’s going on the fact that there’s so much great public art within the city, so many great murals, so many great artistic institutions, but if you’re driving along the highway into Richmond, it basically looks like a … decrepit, old Southern town,” explains Mr. Broth. “There’s no indication of the beauty and the creativity and the culture that we have here. … When I was painting graffiti, I was hitting walls along the highway, so now I’m thinking how we can use those surfaces to showcase our city as a cultural capital.”