Mask Off, by Tampa Bay artist Drew Merritt, faces south in a narrow parking lot at 551 Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Street North.
The wall is 89 feet wide and 12 feet high. Against a white background, tilting back across the left side of the mural, is a giant, lifelike portrait of a woman’s face and hands, holding the head of a small alligator. The curly brown-gold hair around her upturned face reaches past the top of the wall and seems to fall below the ground.
Her skin is golden brown, shadowed as if the sunlight hits her from the right. She’s in three-quarter profile, looking up and to our right, cradling just the head of a small alligator. The woman’s face is so large that this ‘small’ alligator’s head is the size of a car.
The alligator’s jaws are open, and she holds it like a trumpet – her graceful, huge right hand with lavender nails rising out of the ground and gently balancing the bottom jaw. Her left elbow rises from the middle of the mural and angles to the left. Her left hand is behind the alligator, fingers loosely curving up – except her middle finger. That fingertip touches the alligator’s head as if she’s pushing down a trumpet valve.
The alligator’s head rests just under her chin. Her neck is in shadow, but light touches the tendons at her throat. The blue of her right eye looks softly up, half-closed. Her lips are parted, colored in a dusty purple that harmonizes with her fingernails. We see the black and grey-blue swirls of her blouse, in shadow, as her left shoulder leans into the frame.
To those heading north on the sidewalk or the street, the woman’s face is striking, framed by potted palms and partially obscured by a large parking sign. If you’re heading south, she is invisible.
This mural was painted in spray paint. The design was created by Merritt on canvas, for a show some years ago in Tampa. The woman is model and actress Kari Michelle.
The right two-thirds of the white wall contain just the artist’s first name, the letters “d r e w” spelled out in small, stylized, black lower-case letters, each one painted high on the wall and spaced far apart. Merritt says he signs each work the same way, as part of the art.
video by Marcus Oania