Wall to Wall

U nder stormy night sky, a powerboat ascends a frothy ocean crest. A round-cornered berg of soap threatens, peeking out of the water ahead; a giant toddler hand stalks from behind.

Wait. What? 

It’s gorgeous surreal art, painted onto the Humphrey Street/I-91 underpass, and one of its makers is for hire. Unlike most street artists, Ryan Christenson, perhaps better known as ARCY, runs a public-facing business called RC Murals, which offers services including brand design, live muraling and interior and exterior painting for businesses and other organizations looking to spice things up.

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ARCY breaks the mold in other ways. For instance, “I’m not a graffiti writer,” he says. “Graffiti culture is rugged, raw, underground. I never got into that. … I was always much more interested in community beautification and painting on public walls.”

As a teenager living in Wallingford, he would come to New Haven just to see what new pieces had appeared on a set of walls on Water Street near Olive, which New Haven’s legendary graffiti fraternity HI Crew, a.k.a. High-Impact Crew, still paints and repaints to this day. During one visit, Christenson managed to find HI Crew members in the flesh, striking up friendships that allowed him, over time, to absorb skills and techniques from some of the city’s best sprayers. In his early 20s, Christenson became a full-fledged member himself.

That was in 2008. Today, when people see his finesse with a can, Christenson says they assume he spent lots of hours in the streets painting illegally. But that’s not his story. Acting as a scout early on, he would find HI Crew a steady stream of “permission walls” throughout the state that they could paint without causing problems for others. And when the folks behind the Under 91 Project approached HI Crew about painting the Humphrey Street overpass, I’m told it was Christenson who took care of the logistics and drafted the design for HI Crew’s portion.

Now 28, Christenson has been building a name for himself as an individual artist, and beyond Connecticut at that. In 2012, he quit his day job and launched his muraling business. Under the RC Murals banner, he’s traveled the country painting grungy gyms, food trucks, trampoline companies and more than one orthodontist’s office. He says graffiti art is good for businesses looking to market to a younger generation—or simply to stand out. He’s muraled in more than 20 states and various parts of Canada, and says he’s proud of helping small businesses while elevating the public’s conception of what graffiti can be.

Recently, however, Christenson has been diverting attention from RC Murals, where he sometimes finds his art at the mercy of unreasonable customers. “I can only do so many logos for clients,” he says. “Sometimes you send them a hundred different designs and they’re still not satisfied.” He looks up to artists like Tristan Eaton and NYCHOS, who paint commercially but on their own terms. “These artists don’t care if you like their work or not,” Christenson says, and he hopes one day to have the same sort of autonomy.

To that end, since 2014, Christenson has been loosening up and developing his own unique style, one that combines photorealistic people and animals with the fun, wild edge more traditionally associated with graffiti. He’s not abandoning RC Murals; potential clients can still contact him about logos and the like, and he’s even planning to revamp the biz’s website. But he has been dedicating more paint to building up his own personal brand.

This year he did his first summer tour—not as Ryan Christenson of RC Murals, but as ARCY. The distinction is important, he stresses. Rather than tailoring the work to the needs of someone else, Christenson spent the time expressing himself as an artist. Along the way he painted 30 walls in the US, Europe and Canada. “It caught on like wildfire.”

Christenson is already planning a 2016 summer tour, even though the heavy burden of the original sits fresh in his memory. “It’s a lot of work. People don’t realize. I do everything myself. I feel like I’m a one-man army.”

When he’s not being John Rambo with a spray can, he spends time with his wife and sons, Sean (3 1/2 years old) and Connor (18 months), who’ve affected his work both as models and as VIP viewers. Recently incorporating splatter effects into the art, Christenson’s been hiding Mickey Mouse silhouettes for the boys to find.

Asked what HI Crew thinks of his rising profile, Christenson says they pat him on the back, like real friends do. “They’re not the kind of guys to be bitter or jealous. … They’re like brothers.” Not long ago, he remembers one of his HI Crew mentors saying, “‘Dude. I want to congratulate you on finding yourself.’”

Which is also proving to be a good thing for the rest of us.

RC Murals
(860) 866-7293 | [email protected]

Written by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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