Downtown, you’ll find the buses: a Greyhound and a Trailways, the ones that pulled into town on Mother’s Day 1961 filled with Freedom Riders. The Greyhound never made it out of town — it was firebombed on the side of Highway 202. The Trailways, which arrived about an hour later, was boarded by Klan members and the riders severely beaten.
Another history lesson can now be found in Anniston’s historic West 15th Street district: a 90-foot mural on the side of an empty building that features gospel singers in scarlet robes, playing children, a foundry worker heading home after a long day’s work, a Black Panther, a Buffalo soldier and a church. It captures what life in the area — “a city within a city,” the mural announces — was and is.
Giri painted the 15th Street mural over a six-week period. The images were drawn by local artist John Will Davis, who passed away just weeks ago, chosen after community meetings and story circles determined what the community wanted in the artwork.
Giri, 55, lived in Calhoun County when he was a child but got his start in murals in California. He has been an artist since grade school. He bounced around to three different colleges, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Auburn in 1983. But he said he’s spent most of his career “trying to undo all the dogma I learned in college.”
He moved to Hollywood in 1987 and worked in the movie industry, making sets and props — everything from sculptures to backdrops. His Hollywood neighborhood was full of “hardcore crime and corruption,” so he moved to nearby Long Beach in 1989. It was there he painted his first mural. A redeveloper hired him to paint the plywood boards over an empty storefront in downtown Long Beach.
“Downtown was boarded up. I mean there was nothing there,” Giri said. “In two years or less, it was a Starbucks.”
Giri lived in Long Beach until 2005, when the neighborhood that included his studio was taken by a redeveloper and Giri had to leave. He decided to come back home to Alabama.
“I was ready to hide out in the boonies and do my own thing,” he said.
He reached out to the Spirit of Anniston and did some work for them. He painted the sunflower mural on the back of the Spirit office on Noble Street, for which he was paid one old pickup truck.
Spirit then hired him to paint the buses, and then the West 15th Street mural, all three of which are points on Anniston’s Civil Rights and Heritage Trail.
Giri believes that embracing Anniston’s past — both the good and bad — is the only way to move the city forward.
“It’s on the same level as Monsanto doing the clean up and compensating people,” he said. “To not mitigate that wrong would have been this everlasting pox. To put it out there and address it … the only way to right a wrong is to acknowledge it.”
And by acknowledging the wrongs with art, the city can use its past to move forward.
“It’s Redevelopment 101,” Giri said. “To bring people into the community, draw murals. If you have an under-used area that you’re trying to develop, the quickest, cheapest, most efficient way is a mural.
“What was an eyesore becomes a landmark.”