How an app is turning Flint’s growing collection of murals into an international virtual art gallery

The Flint Public Art Project has attracted artists from around the world to create more than 100 murals -- and counting -- in the city of Flint. Now, thanks to an app and technology created by St. Petersburg, Florida,-based PixelStix, the story behind each mural will be accessible from anywhere.


“You’re able to stay in your car, have your phone, hook it up to bluetooth, drive around using the virtual map in the app to any piece that you want, and then basically launch the audio narration about the piece in your car,” said Matthew Walker, CEO and founder of PixelStix. “You’re enjoying art through your windshield and learning about it, then you go to the next piece. That’s a legitimate art gallery experience, and in the pandemic world, it’s one of the only art gallery experiences.”


Walker and James Tice, co-creator and Chief Technology Officer of PixelStix, visited Flint in August to tour some of the city’s murals and help with installation of plaques that include a sticker that is actually a tiny computer.


“There’s an app for artists to upload content directly from their phone to the sticker,” Tice said. “Then, other people who have the app use it to scan the sticker and can see the video the artist uploaded.”


PixelStix began as a way to solve a family problem. After a cross-country trip with his youngest daughter, Walker said that they had a photo album full of pictures, but all of the videos from the trip were on phones. He and Tice teamed up to develop the sticker technology for photo albums, but then had a bigger idea. St. Petersburg is home to more than 600 murals and hosts the annual SHINE Mural Festival, one of the largest street art festivals in the world. What if the technology could help artists tell the stories behind their work and share it with people anywhere?


“We would stumble onto street art, and have no idea how or when it was created,” Walker said. “We started sharing this with artists, that they can put their story on this sticker and put it on the wall.”


Joe Schipani, executive director of the Flint Public Art Project, was able to connect with PixelStix and tour how the app and technology have enhanced the street art experience in St. Petersburg. He was also able to share the impact Flint’s growing number of murals have had on the community.


The opportunity to partner and create a similar virtual gallery experience in Flint seemed like a natural fit, one that would benefit artists and the community. For example, Nomad Clan has done murals in Flint and St. Petersburg, among other places around the world. Now, someone would be able to see a mural they did in St. Petersburg, scan the PixelStix sticker on their phone, and connect to work they’ve done in Flint.


“Joe has built a legitimate art gallery, something that attracts people from outside of Flint, outside of Michigan into the community to revitalize the economy,” Walker said. “Flint is a special area, this technology can do a lot of good.”


One area the analytics and data the app provides to local communities is the ability to measure impact. Anecdotally, Schipani has heard from a lot of people who have visited murals throughout the city and come to Flint to see them. There are also formal tours, including a bike tour by Flint City Bike Tours and a walking tour organized by the Flint DDA, that have developed as a result of the murals. But the app can actually show numbers of people who are using it and visiting places in the city.


“One of the benefits of mural festivals is you’re providing art in public spaces that’s accessible to everybody, so charging admission goes against the point of all of that,” Walker said. “This helps make the case to local communities of actual value art is bringing to communities -- it can show analytics, views, etc.”


Schipani is working to add more using the app to each mural. Public service content can be added to the app so that people viewing or listening at certain stops also gain important messages. For example, at voting themed murals in Flint, voter registration information can be added to the PixelStix content.


“We’re continuously working on adding new features to turn them more into a gallery, with a voice narrative of someone telling you about the mural and making them more interactive,” Schipani said. “It adds to the excitement of the mural through the app.”


Walker and Tice were impressed with the abundance and level of street art throughout Flint on their visit.


“I’m amazed at what’s going to exist here in Flint,” Walker said. “There isn’t any other country that has what Flint’s going to have. The intent is to give Flint a much louder megaphone to show the world what is here.”

The PixelStix app is available for download in the iOS store or Google Play.

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Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.