Placemaking by paintbrush: MARKed ARTs and the artist behind our community murals

Mark Piotrowski sees a blank wall as an opportunity for a community to tell a local, creative and inspiring story. Whether you know it or not, chances are you’ve seen his work.

Public art has a powerful engagement factor, often spurring interesting conversations among neighbors, friends and strangers alike. Art can bring many things to a community including historical reference, cultural understanding, acting as a catalyst for change and creating a strong attachment to place, making communities public canvases open for dialogue.

Mark Piotrowski working away on the Live Oak Coffeehouse mural in 2018.

We’re not alone either, according to a 2018 survey by Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization centered around advancing the arts and arts education, 72 percent of Americans believe the arts unify communities regardless of age, race and ethnicity and 81 percent believe art can be a positive experience in a troubled world.

Piotrowski views public art as a source of community pride and his favorite aspect is seeing people use the space when a mural is complete. “I love seeing how the public interacts with the spaces when we are done. Public art has the unique ability to transform the spaces and communities in which we live. It has the power to get people out, interacting and connecting organically, where maybe they would not have had the opportunity before,” he says.

MARKed ARTs work on Eastman Road in Midland.

“I really get a kick out of the hundreds of times I’ve been tagged when people have taken pictures in front of the murals. They kind of naturally become landmark pieces that immediately inspire a connection to place within the community. All the work is community-driven and unique, so each one truly ends up having a story of its own.”

By day, Piotrowski is an art teacher at Western High School in Bay City, Michigan and has run MARKed ARTs on the side officially for the last five to six years. Piotrowski has a much longer history and has been doing murals professionally since he was 18, well before the business had a name. He did most of his work for Bay City Public Schools, though much of his work can no longer be seen due to reconstruction. One of Piotrowski’s first public murals was on Duncan’s Outdoor Shop in Bay City, which was started in 1992 and eventually expanded to a total of three murals on the building. 

The Veterans Memorial Bridge mural in progress.

The work of MARKed ARTs can be found at several other locations in the region as well, notably the colorful and detailed mural on the columns under the US-10 bridge over Saginaw Road in Midland and the murals under and around Veterans Bridge and the Uptown District in Bay City.

"The MARKed ARTs pieces in Bay City really reflect the spirit and fabric of what makes our community special," says Diane Fong, President and CEO of the Bay Area Community Foundation. "As we continue to grow as a community, visually telling that story of who we are will remain an integral piece of Bay City's rich history and narrative."

Mark Piotrowski, the man and the brush behind MARKed ARTs in front of the mural at Live Oak Coffeehouse in Midland.

MARKed ARTs officially got its start after Piotrowski was featured at Art Prize 2013 in Grand Rapids with a piece titled Mediation. Mediation features 16 individual shapes cut from sign foam and painted with enamel. The pieces were installed on a wall constructed out of painted aluminum and anchored to the side of the Apartment Lounge in Downtown Grand Rapids.

The components of 'Mediation' in Mark's workshop as they finalized for ArtPrize 2013.

Piotrowski’s efforts in developing public art in the region were initially aided by help from Studio 23 in Bay City, the Bay Area Community Foundation, the Youth Advisory Committee with the BACF and the Midland Area Community Foundation, to name a few.

Some pieces he does on his own, though MARKed Arts has a few partners that help out on some murals including Sean Gallagher, Adam Wernecke and Eric Larson. Piotrowski did the mural at Live Oak Coffeehouse on his own, which totaled about three weeks of work. The column work under US-10 was a full team effort. Piotrowski uses the highest quality materials that have been tested to stand up to the elements and the sun and sealed with a protective coating that is anti-graffiti and can be washed off.

A close up of the detail on the Veterans Memorial Bridge piece.

He gets inspiration and ideas from many different places, but stresses that many of the designs are collaborations between the businesses or community members that commissions the work.

“I work closely with clients to develop a good sense of their vision for each project,” says Piotrowski. “Often we will go through several ideas and mock ups before the final vision for each mural is decided on. The murals really end up being collaborative pieces with each client, which is really great.”

One of the murals under the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Bay City.

Driving a unique sense of place has long been an effort in the region and more projects are planned for 2019, though the exact areas haven’t been revealed yet. One small hint is available however – one of the districts that will be getting MARKed this year is a location in Midland’s Center City.

MARKed ARTs helped the Midland Area Community Foundation’s Public Art Committee make a big splash with one of the first of Piotrowski’s murals in Midland, a large four-column spread under the US-10 business route bridge.

Bay City's Uptown District mural in progress.

“The Public Art Committee engaged in two projects as the group got underway in 2017, one of which was the mural under the US-10 bridge, which is wonderfully decorated with so many aspects of the community, from Dow Gardens, to the Tridge, the hot air balloons of the Riverdays Festival and more,” says Sharon Mortensen, President and CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation. “The Public Art Committee believes that art connects, heals, inspires, teaches and speaks to us in a myriad of ways that build stronger and more vibrant communities. We are honored that Midland Area Community Foundation can share in this vision and could be a part of bringing this mural to our community.”

Piotrowski working on the US-10 bridge mural in Midland.

The mural at Live Oak Coffeehouse has helped to create a sense of community, something that Renee Deckrow had hoped for when starting the project in 2018.

"Our mural at Live Oak speaks to the community development and engagement efforts that have continued to evolve in Midtown," says Renee Deckrow, owner of Live Oak Coffeehouse. "It has made the Midtown community immediately distinctive, vibrant and a space where people feel like they can create and connect. We hope to build on that effort in the years to come as the community grows."

One of the murals under the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Bay City.

Piotrowski’s favorite mural outside of the region is the artwork of Paolo Pedini and the murals at Eastern Market in Detroit. “To me, they capture the essence of what the market brings to the city of Detroit while acting as an inspiring backdrop in the community,” says Piotrowski.

One of the many murals from Bay City Public Schools, this one was at Kola Elementary. The majority of BCPS work has been lost due to reconstruction.

As for his work in the region, Piotrowski says he is thankful his passion for public art has made such an impact in the two communities. “It has been an honor to be a part of each of these projects and communities in a way that shapes how people interact, create and participate in the local landscape and I’m looking forward to continuing to paint new connections to place in the region.”

The completed Uptown District mural in Bay City.

If you would like to tag your pictures and interactions with a MARKed ARTs mural or piece, use the hashtag #MARKedART or #MARKedARTs. MARKed ARTs provided several of the pictures featured in this article. You can find MARKed ARTs on Instagram at @markedart.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.