Fighting Prohibition with MTO In Lexington, KY

“The Bluegrass State” is probably one of the first things you think of when you hear about Kentucky. Also bourbon, horse racing, and college basketball.  And Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

Nope, street art and graffiti don’t spring to mind.


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)

Well gird your loins; How & Nosm, ROA, and Kobra all have big pieces here in Lexington. So does Phlegm, Gaia, and now MTO (though barely, we’ll get to that in a minute). The point is, these are well known and regarded artists from the street art scene globally, and each is still on the rise professionally.

Spearheaded by John and Jessica Winters, gallerists and the co-founders of a mural and cultural program called PRHBTN, about a dozen international artists and a number of local ones have been putting up work on walls here since 2011. While it’s not the free-range illegal sort of graffitti and is mostly comprised of legal murals, the room for expression is great and the program undeniably brings a lot of life to the city, engendering a lot of discussion between neighbors and people on the street.


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)

“We don’t necessarily have a particular vision aside from the idea of continuing to bringing amazing artists to Lexington, for them to create art on our walls,” say John and Jessica in a recent interview with Christine Huskisson in a local cultural arts website named UM (Under Main). In fact their desire to not intrude on the creative vision of the artist may have spurred some neighborhood conflict with the newest addition by MTO.

The enormous piece MTO did upset some of the neighbors and community leaders because the hands and fingers of the figure reminded them of something they might have seen on TV dramas. Before you knew it, there was a “controversy” about gang signs and discussions about whether it would draw unsavory types to the area.


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)

You know – gangs! Here! Soon! According to the folks at PRHBTN, the majority of the businesses and community responses they had were supportive, but a few vocal concerns lead the narrative for awhile. They also say they sought all the necessary permissions to put the art up on private property. Some say the criticisms are about personal tastes, but it may also reek of deeper prejudices.

MTO has triggered this sort of response in the past, and we’ve published a piece about a Floridian community response to his work that was startlingly similar. Here again it looks like he has provoked a subconscious reaction that is very telling about the “discomfort” that perfectly nice folks can’t quite put their finger on.


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)

In reality, MTO is just spelling out his initials, silly. Of course he is poking the monkey by putting himself (or someone) behind bars – and the aspirator ads to the scary mask effect.”I finished the biggest mural I ever did in Kentucky,” he says, “The controversy started when I was just starting to sketch on the wall.” He explains the particulars and doesn’t really mind the discussions his art has started, and is pleased with his wall overall.

Along with a video he has just released, the back story is now told – or at least a colorful fictional version of it. Taking his tip from the Winter’s program name, he tells an winding tale about Prohibition that drunkenly mixes real life and metaphor. The guy makes interesting film/videos too, by the way.

Its guaranteed that you will not predict the end of this tale – and it probably isn’t over.


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)


MTO “My Name Is MO” For PRHBTN 2014. Street Art Festival in Lexington, KY. (photo © MTO)




Additional stories about the issues that some took, and some rode, with this new mural by MTO.


Please note: All content including images and text are ©, unless otherwise noted. We like sharing BSA content for non-commercial purposes as long as you credit the photographer(s) and BSA, include a link to the original article URL and do not remove the photographer’s name from the .jpg file. Otherwise, please refrain from re-posting. Thanks!