"Geocaching" uncovers murals about DC culture and history
Hidden treasures lie all over Greater Washington. For those in the know, these finds can create a new map of local culture and history, street art, and changing neighborhoods in a game called "geocaching."
Geocached murals reveal "the real DC"
Similar to orienteering, geocaching is a massive, worldwide GPS-based treasure hunt. Using a GPS device or a smartphone app, the "cacher" tries to find hidden objects, called "geocaches" or "caches" for short, hidden by other cachers. They can be big or tiny, a large tupperware or just a tiny magnet with a paper log inside. Once found, the cacher logs their finds online.
Geocaches must be hidden from view but may not be buried. They must be placed with permission of the landowner or on public land, but are not allowed on National Park Service land.
Within the geocaching community, certain cachers develop a reputation for creating exactly these types of experiences, intimate glimpses into a small corner of the city not found in a guidebook or on a Segway tour. Among cachers in the DC area, few can boast a stronger resume than Lewis Francis of Falls Church, also known as Exmachina. He's a curator of hidden mural caches located within eyeshot of the city's lesser-known works of street art.
Francis finds inspiration from discovering interesting places, and he decided to begin a mural series while walking around Columbia Heights, where he works. "When it's warm I like to explore and wander around the neighborhood," he says. "I noticed a mural right behind Wonderland Ballroom. I thought, this is kind of cool, you wouldn't know about it unless you stumble across it."
He found an app called "Art Around," which shows where all of the murals are located on a map. The more Francis learned about the murals, he realized he wanted to share them with other cachers.
Located all over the city, most of the murals in Francis' series are part of the Murals DC Project, a program sponsored by the Department of Public Works intended to target graffiti-prone areas, sponsor programming for at-risk youth, and enhance communities through beautification.
Many of these murals are located in areas that are in transition or off the beaten path. Some are in alleys in bustling urban corridors, others in quiet residential neighborhoods. Some are hidden in plain sight and others take a bit of sleuthing to find. The geocache series has brought hundreds of visitors, residents, tourists and business travelers alike, to a unique slice of "the real DC."
A mural's life is fleeting
Francis chooses the murals in his series carefully. "When I look at a mural, it has to speak to me," he says. "It has to have some unique history and has to be in a place that people will come across but not in the open."
One such mural is ""Un pueblo sin murales..." in Adams Morgan. Painted in 1977, the mural was created by a group of Latino immigrant artists and restored in 2005 by activist group Sol & Soul and artist Juan Pineda.
The Picasso-esque mural depicts life in the Latino immigrant community in DC in the 1970s, but it also reminds the viewer that the neighborhood has changed since it went up. Last year's earthquake and subsequent building repairs have damaged some parts of the mural, but hopefully it will be restored soon.
Francis believes that murals are intended to be temporary, as the neighborhood changes, improves and new buildings rise, the murals become another piece of the past. One of his early mural caches, "World of Columbia Heights," is already gone.
When he archived the listing, he wrote, "Sadly, it appears this mural and its cache have gone the way of all good things. If a new mural ever again graces these walls I will re-enable. Goodbye old friend, I and my office neighborhood will miss you."
Francis is always on the lookout for candidates for new mural caches. "Sometimes geocachers tell me about places," he says. That's how he discovered "73 Cents," a mural that depicts the artist's husband's struggle with cancer and is meant to advocate for patients' rights. "It was such an interesting and sad story," he adds.
He's also looking for other urban adventures. "I was thinking about a series showcasing the rock clubs. Maybe a cache at Walter Reed," he says. "The caches I like are not just about the hide, but also about the location."
Ultimately, the mural caches are the best kind of reminders that DC is a complex and vibrant community, one which conventional wisdom and reductionist judgments cannot begin to capture. Whether teaching us about a past DC now gone, or the potential for DC's future, the city's murals are an intimate part of the often-overlooked cultural richness of the District of Columbia.
Below are a few of my favorite murals, although I will not divulge the exact locations of the geocaches so you can go out and find them yourself!
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