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Wonder Walls

Tulsa’s building-sized mural scene is growing due to the work of Clean Hands — a group that doesn’t mind getting their hands covered in paint to add something artistic and creative to the cityscape.

Michele Chiappetta
Valerie Grant
February 15, 2017

If you’ve wandered throughout downtown Tulsa recently, you may have noticed some pretty big pieces of art. We’re talking full walls of art. Murals. Downtown is filled with examples of these creative, colorful images that beautify the urban landscape and serve as reminders that as we work and run around on our busy schedules, there is always time to take a breather and enjoy something that builds the soul.

Tulsa’s mural scene is growing due to the work of Clean Hands — a group of guys (Aaron Whisner, Justin Baney, and Case Morton) who don’t mind getting their hands covered in paint to add something artistic and creative to Tulsa’s cityscape. They got their start from what you might expect — a love of art and a chance to earn some money at the same time.

Clean Hands was formed in 2012 when Whisner moved back to the area after living in Tokyo. “I needed a studio to do print work in,” he explains. “I found a space on Sixth Street that had a lot of potential. There were a couple other artists that were going to split the lease with me, but backed out last minute. I wanted the space so bad, so I started calling and texting everyone I knew. At the time, I just knew Justin [Baney] through my brother. I knew he dabbled in art and carpentry a bit, so I hit him up. It was literally pure luck that we ended up working together.”

Morton joined the two men soon after, when Whisner and Baney were building out the new space. With backgrounds in graffiti, street art or design, the three pals were inspired to create their own line of products to sell. As it happened, Clean Hands started out as a print studio.

Whisner, Baney and Morton launched a screen-printing shop and storefront to sell their line of shirts and art supplies. “It was never really the intention to start a mural crew,” Whisner says. “It just naturally moved in that direction. In 2013, I was commissioned to paint a mural for the Woody Guthrie Center.”

Tulsa’s mural scene is growing due to the work of Clean Hands. (Photo: Valerie Grant)

You’ve probably seen the striking mural that Whisner is talking about, since it trumpets its existence boldly on the corner of Mathew Brady Street and Boston Avenue. The portrait of Guthrie towers over those who walk by, his stylized image and song lyrics reminding us that this land is our land, and the guitar is a powerful machine against fascism.

The mural’s triumph became clear quickly with the public’s positive response to it. “After that,” says Whisner, “we started to notice the love our community had for public art, so we started seeking more of these jobs.”

Like many artists, the guys at Clean Hands find inspiration in many places. Whisner says his motivation comes in large part from his love of creating large-scale paintings and his desire to make a mark. “I think all people have a primal instinct to write on stuff — to let the world know they were there,” he says.

But he’s also driven to promote art in Tulsa. “My motivation also comes from wanting to progress and inspire cultural growth in our city, to inspire the next generation of artists who may not see these types of large scale works firsthand unless they travel to a larger city.”

As it happens, there is a growing trend of mural art burgeoning in other parts of the state. Oklahoma City and Stillwater both have mural districts. Clean Hands works mostly in Tulsa, however, as they say there is plenty more for them to do here. Since the Guthrie mural, says Whisner, “things have really taken off.”

Like many artists, the guys at Clean Hands find inspiration in many places. (Photo: Valerie Grant)

Among his favorites of the work Clean Hands has done? Whisner names the Rose Pawn Shop, and the mural at the corner of Third and Elgin. “These walls had less guidelines on the subject matter and are the closest representation of our style,” he says. “We love all the projects that come our way, and they all have a bit of our flavor, but it’s always nice to be able to do whatever you want to do with no restrictions.”

Of course, there are always rules to go by, especially if you don’t want to be accused of creating graffiti. Whisner says that the art people see on walls around downtown have been purposefully commissioned by the building owners.

Clean Hands is also expanding their efforts into new areas. Last year, they started the Habit Mural Festival, during which participants painted a 50,000 square foot building. “To my knowledge, it may be the largest concentrated area of murals in Oklahoma,” says Whisner. This year, the festival will be back [May 13–14], and plans are underway to bring in some big-name out-of-town artists.

“We’re currently working on gathering sponsorships and will be announcing the artists for 2017 soon. All of the murals from last year will be covered, so there are only a few more months to see last year’s work. The warehouse is in the East Village near First and Lansing.”

In addition to being a mural festival, Habit is also a nonprofit. “The goal is to be doing public art projects year round that give back to communities,” Whisner adds.