Downtown Chapel Hill

Downtown Blog

11 Murals in Chapel Hill You Probably Didn't Know Existed

We've all been impressed by the countless murals in Chapel Hill at one time or another. 

Maybe you've seen them around and wondered what their backstories could be, maybe you've taken the time to look closely at the little details, or maybe you just haven't noticed them. Either way, here are 11 murals in Chapel Hill you probably didn't know existed and definitely didn't know the story behind.

1. "Laying the Cornerstone of Old East"


NEAR: Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, Four Corners, TRU Deli & Wine Bar

CONTEXT: This mural was painted by artist Dean Cornwell, a successful commercial illustrator, in 1941, and it stands as the oldest public mural still present in Chapel Hill. It's located on the interior walls of the Courthouse and the Post Office, where Cornwell depicted future governor of NC William Richardson Davie laying the cornerstone of Old East, the nation's oldest state university building.

2. The Cave


NEAR: Joe's Joint, Bub O'Malley's

CONTEXT: Located on the cavernous interior walls of Wallace Parking Deck, muralist Michael Brown was asked to paint something to make the deck look more welcoming in 1992. Brown decided to embrace the cave-like nature of the deck and paint these animals in a way that would resemble prehistoric cave paintings.

3. Trees & Seasons

NEAR: Lantern Restaurant, 411 West Italian Cafe

CONTEXT: Also painted by Brown, this mural was created when poplar trees lined this wall, and he decided to climb them and paint the trees while hanging on the limbs as tribute to the poplars. 

4. Dogwoods

NEAR: Orange County Visitors Bureau, Kipos Greek Taverna

CONTEXT: This is one of Brown's more recent murals commissioned by the Visitors Bureau, finished in 2011. Originally, it was just dogwood flowers with brick showing through, but Brown came back to paint the green background and more blossoms down the hallway to the back door. 

5. Quilt

NEAR: Shaka Shave Ice, Ms Molly's Gift Shop

CONTEXT: For this one, Brown was inspired by patchwork quilting. He wanted to use up extra paint he had left over in cans from other murals, and decided to make a colorful quilt-like pattern. After he drew the square grid, his volunteer painters were able to mix paint colors and create their own squares on the wall.

6. Hargraves

NEAR: Hargraves Community Center and Park

CONTEXT: Each of these five murals, painted by David Wilson in 2004, presents a history of the Hargraves Center community and its prominent leaders as the first social and recreational facility for African-Americans in Chapel Hill. The woman wearing a green dress in the back is Dorothy Fearington, also known as Mama Dot, who has worked for the Center for over 40 years caring for the children. 

7. Many Earths

NEAR: La Residence 

CONTEXT: This mural used to be on the side of Syd's Hair Shop before it moved to North Graham Street next to the thrift store Rumors. Brown painted this one in 2002, and he has said that it's one of his favorite murals. However, he feels like he may not have made the philosophical meaning behind the planets clear enough, and hopes to paint a haiku on it one day if it gets restored to clarify so others can understand the concept behind it.

8. Hands

NEAR: Mediterranean Deli, Brown's Paint & Hardware

CONTEXT: You may have seen this one around before; it used to be on the side of Chapel Hill Cleaners before it closed a few years ago. This was Brown's second mural in Chapel Hill, and wanted to change his painting style from his first. Many elementary school children helped him with this one, so he decided to have them make handprints all over the wall in the shape of larger handprints. Over 50 passersby -- including a local official and a Carolina basketball player -- have also contributed their handprints to the mural. Brown got the idea from the student tradition of making Carolina blue handprints on walls after a basketball victory.

9. Jigsaw Puzzle

NEAR: Light Years, Chapel Hill Sportswear

CONTEXT: This mural is in the alley between those two stores on East Franklin Street. It was created in 1999 and town-commissioned in order to discourage graffiti artists from vandalizing the alley, since Brown's murals are rarely tagged. Jigsaw Puzzle was designed by Brown and painted by student volunteers. It actually started out as one Carolina blue colored wall and the other a darker, Duke blue to symbolize the age-old rivalry between the two schools. The puzzle pieces were eventually created to show the interconnected, complex relationship. There are said to be little puzzle pieces painted all over town by the student painters -- see if you can find them!

10. Amber Alley

NEAR: Joe's Joint, Wallace Parking Deck

CONTEXT: Also painted in 1999, this mural is more hidden because it strings along the back side of Franklin Street restaurants. Brown got the idea for the amber beads he painted after he watched Jurassic Park with his son. He decided to use the beads to capture and preserve little gems of Chapel Hill inside them. If you look closely, you can see icons such as Dean Smith, the Old Well and the Bell Tower in them along with insects as the amber is naturally intended for.

11. Blue Mural

NEAR: Rosemary/Columbia parking lot, Sawasdee Thai Restaurant

CONTEXT: It's fitting we end with this mural, for it has a justified sense of importance as being the first mural of many painted by Brown in Chapel Hill. Painted in 1989 and restored in 2009, this mural shows the nighttime cityscape of Chapel Hill as Brown remembers it when he was working as a dishwasher at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe. This was the first mural that established his reputation as a painter, and he worked with student volunteers to create it using small dots of color rather than larger paint strokes.

So next time you're taking a stroll, eating at your favorite restaurant or shopping at a fun boutique downtown, check out that mural across the street.

All information about murals in this post comes from the Chapel Hill Recorder! If you want to learn more about Chapel Hill murals or look at her mural walking tour, click here.