"Does this look like a sign?" read the front-page banner in The Argonaut, a South Bay community paper. Beneath it was a photograph of a 102-foot-long mural that moodily pays homage to a 1958 movie filmed on Windward Avenue in Venice. It accompanied a story about how Los Angeles officials were grappling with a new city mural ordinance.
Wilder pointed out the front window of the Novel Cafe toward the mural he is painting on the side of a nearby business, the Printing Palace.
"Outdoor walls are the new gallery space," said Wilder, 43, of Mar Vista. "Murals are part of the Los Angeles culture. We live through our windshields in this city."
Wilder, who signs his artwork "Meex1,"is part of a team of artists who have volunteered to paint murals on businesses along a four-block stretch of Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. Unlike in neighboring Los Angeles, officials there allow new murals.
The "Beautify Lincoln" campaign was started 10 months ago by Evan Meyer, a Santa Monica software developer who has lived near the dreary boulevard for a decade.
So far, Meyer's dozen artists have brightened 20 drab storefronts and have a growing list of future targets.
"Everyone wants someone else to do something," said Meyer, 30. "All it takes is a paint can and a brush and you can give your community something without asking anything in return."
The Novel Cafe boasts one of Beautify Lincoln's first murals. Rita Lux's artwork depicts a fanciful tree that springs from a city-like grid next to an ocean, just like Santa Monica itself.
Meyer said recruiting artists to work for free is the easy part. He provides the paint and negotiates agreements with property owners. Another dozen artists have expressed an interest in joining the beautification effort as more businesses sign up, he said.
"The hardest part is getting the property owner's approval. I tell them this is a run-down area that needs a better visual appeal," he said. "I tell them that murals can tie the community together."
The artists come up with their own designs that owners are asked to approve before work starts. The murals cannot be advertisements for the business or contain religious, political or cultural references.
For Wilder's print shop mural, he sketched out two possibilities, both influenced by the work of wallpaper designer David Hicks.
"The owner looked at the two versions and picked the more complicated one," he said. Wilder has spent about a month painting cube shapes that are dripping what appears to be ink on the side of the print shop. The front of the shop features triangular shapes painted by muralist Ramon Solano.
"I probably used $100 worth of paint. But an exorbitant amount went into the labor," Wilder said, laughing.
Though artists are not paid, donations by Meyer, store owners and others in the community have covered the $5,000 spent so far on the project. Meyer buys the paint at cost.
Some of the Lincoln Boulevard murals are deceptively simple-looking. Many have nature themes that tie in with the ocean and nearby mountains.
Artist Naira Arutyunyan painted a twisting vine that interacts with rain clouds and a rising sun on the side of Ameci Pizza and Pasta. In front of the restaurant, an abandoned pay phone is being converted by Meyer into a lighted, mosaic-covered menu holder.
At Dunn's Auto Upholstery and the Bicycle Ambulance bike shop next door, artist Amelia Drake created on the side and front a mural depicting birds flying over the shoreline and sitting on wires. She also painted some of the building's trim to highlight individual bricks.
Fanciful balloons hovering over representations of canyons designed by Sho Hernandez and Meyer cover the front of the Lucky Liquor and Mini Mart.
Other artwork is complicated and carefully calibrated, however.
Artist Matthew Schildkret used a party-like motif on the front and side of the TRiP bar. Multicolored vertical splotches decorate the front and part of the side, which also features festive overlapping circles. Behind the bar, a wall facing a parking lot features a psychedelic owl and dog painted by a muralist who goes by the name "Septerhed." His real name is unknown, even to Meyer.
But Meyer is convinced that once business owners notice neighboring stores are being spruced up, they'll take steps to improve the look of their property as well. That's already happening: Even property owners who turned down his offer of a free mural have been compelled to hire professional painters to freshen up their places, he said.
Some business owners are crediting the murals for increasing foot traffic into their shops. Benny Escobar, owner of Metropolitan Cleaners, said the abstract art painted on his place by Josh Manes has boosted business by as much as 20%.
"Some people have come in for the first time asking, 'When did you open?'" Escobar said.
"I tell them we've been here since 1952."