With many things in Cincinnati closed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to take advantage of one of the city’s coolest outdoor attractions: the murals.
Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhoods are decorated with dozens of murals, most of them created through the amazing work of a local non-profit organization, ArtWorks. If you want to learn about these huge paintings and how they were created, I highly recommend going on an official tour with ArtWorks. As I write, they have recently started offering Saturday tours in OTR on a limited basis.
Here, we’re going with the free and independent route. I plotted out my original walk and added details about the murals so you can save yourself a lot of Googling! This self-guided tour will take you on a loop through the Central Business District and a small corner of Over-the-Rhine, from Fountain Square to Washington Park and back. We’ll stop and see 19 murals, including some of the most popular ones.
There are many more, of course, so feel free to wander on your own art-seeking adventure. ArtWorks has a PDF map that shows where to find most of the murals. I’m planning on making another walking tour through OTR to see even more!
The walk is about 1.5 miles. Give yourself about 2 hours. (You wanna stop for pictures, right?)
Downtown Cincinnati Murals Map
Above is a map of the tour route. Click the top left corner to see a list of stops and to turn layers on/off. You can also click the star and save it to your Google maps.
We start at Fountain Square, the main square of downtown Cincinnati’s central business district. The fountain, officially called the Tyler Davidson Fountain, is a symbol of the city that’s stood here since 1871 (technically it’s been moved around a few times). Head east toward the Fifth Third Bank building (the tall building, not the big TV screen) and find Walnut St. behind it. Turn left, and walk a short way down Walnut St. to the corner of 6th and Walnut. The first mural is on the southwest corner of the intersection, and it’s easiest to see from the opposite side of the street.
This colorful mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra depicts the astronaut Neil Armstrong. You know the story—as part of the Apollo 11 mission, he was the first person to walk on the moon. Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio. After his NASA career, he served as a professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Continue north on Walnut St. (towards the Aronoff Center) for two blocks and turn left on 8th St. The next mural is on the right.
- Self-Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse
Cincinnati native Elizabeth Nourse was a realist painter who completed the original of this self-portrait in 1892. After her studies at Cincinnati’s McMicken School of Design, she went on to a career of international acclaim. Nourse’s expression here shows strength and self-confidence in a time when women weren’t usually portrayed with these qualities. You can see several of her paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Continue east on 8th St. The next mural is on the left side near the intersection of 8th and Main.
- Still Life #60, Tom Wesselmann
This still life is a copy of a 1974 painting by Cincinnati-born artist Tom Wesselmann. The original is pretty big too, painted on 6 cutout panels that stretch almost 26 ft. wide. The style here is pop art, taking inspiration from the mass produced items that shape our culture. Look at how the highlights show smooth metal and plastic textures, even though it’s painted on a rough wall.
Take a left on to Main St. and follow it for a block north.
- Little Nemo in Slumberland
Cartoonist Windsor McCay saw his greatest success with the fantasy comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, which started running in the New York Herald in 1906. This mural is a recreation of one of his full-page comics. McCay lived in Cincinnati for several years, drawing for the Cincinnati newspapers before making his way to New York City.
Continue north on Main St. for a block and turn left on Court St. Follow Court St. for half a block, and look for a blue mural on the left side.
- Homecoming (Blue Birds)
This mural is based on an original design by Charley Harper, a hero of Cincinnati art. Harper developed a signature geometric style he called “minimal realism,” often employing it to depict nature subjects like these two bluebirds. You’ll see his animal designs in lots of places around town, like the walls of the Cincinnati Zoo and adorning various decorative items. Charley’s wife Edie Harper was also a noted artist–we’ll see one of her designs soon.
Turn around and continue west along Court St. towards Walnut St. Turn right and head for the parking lot on the southwest corner of Walnut St. and Central Pkwy.
- Visionary Reality Threshold and Fresh Harvest
Two murals on one corner! The bright, geometric mural is one of Cincinnati’s newest, designed by modern artist Saya Woolfalk and completed in 2019. The mural depicts a series of portals with a goddess rising up in the center. Take a moment to get lost in the intricate patterns.
To the right is Fresh Harvest, a vibrantly realistic design by Jonathan Queen inspired by classical European paintings. This produce-themed mural sits below the headquarters of The Kroger Company, the largest supermarket chain in the US. (If you need groceries, their “On-the-Rhine” store is just across Walnut St.)
Head back to Walnut St. and (carefully!) make your way further north across Central Parkway. Our next stop is another parking lot on the west side of Walnut St., about a half block up from Central Pkwy. on the left.
- Crazy Cat, Crazy Quilt and Know Theatre Mural
The playful, quilt-like mural on the left is by Edie Harper and depicts her favorite cat, Katrinka. Harper was an accomplished artist in several different mediums, including painting and textiles. Like her husband Charley, much of Edie Harper’s work depicts animals. They met at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, once located near the art museum but relocated to just around the corner here in OTR.
On the other side of the parking lot is an imaginative mural on the side of the Know Theatre. The mural was created for the 2016 Fringe Festival and incorporates a few Cincinnati landmarks like the rose window from nearby Music Hall. Do you see it?
Continue through the parking lot and turn right toward 12th St.
- Lookin’ Good and Ice Cream Daydream
The opposite side of the Know Theatre has another Fringe Festival mural. The glowing neon lights may look realistic now, but they really came to life in 2019, when artists used projected lighting effects to make the mural flash and move for the BLINK festival. If you haven’t heard of BLINK, it’s a festival of light-based art that…well, it deserves its own post.
On the other building is Ice Cream Daydream. The building may look dark, but this whimsical mural by Amanda Checco lights up the parking lot with a bright, dreamy style. Who’s getting hungry for dessert?
Cross 12th St. and turn left. Head west on 12th St. toward Vine St. Turn right into the parking lot before the streetcar stop, and face the wall on the side of the parking lot.
- Energy and Grace
This mural by Cincinnati artist and professor Kim Krause was the first abstract mural from ArtWorks. According to the organization, the mural’s “vibrant colors and whimsical movement capture the energy and momentum in Over-the-Rhine.” You can almost imagine these fanciful shapes whirling around the old brick buildings.
Continue west on 12th St. and cross Vine St. You’ll cross OTR’s rainbow LGBTQ pride crosswalk. Go one building past the intersection and turn around to face the west side of that building.
Tucked away on the north side of 12th St. is a mural that commemorates the 125th anniversary of the Woman’s Art Club of Cincinnati. Founded in 1892, it’s the oldest women’s art club in the country. The Art Nouveau-inspired design by Tina Westerkamp shows portraits of women of three different ages who represent the club’s members. They “emerge” from a corset, evolving through creativity.
Turn around and continue for a half block west on 12th St. You have now reached Washington Park. Take some time to walk around and explore the park. If you’re making a day of it, this is a good place to leave the tour and wander more of Over-the-Rhine. Otherwise, when you’re ready to continue the tour, come back to this corner of Race St.
To continue, head south along Race St. and turn left when you get back to the wide Central Parkway. The next mural is in a small parking lot just around the corner.
- Canal at Vine Street Circa 1900
This mural is based on a 1900 photo of the Miami and Erie Canal, which once flowed right where Central Parkway is today and went north to Toledo. The barrels and brewery sign are reminders of Cincinnati’s brewing heritage. Led by a large population of German immigrants, Cincinnati became the capital of brewing in America by the 1890’s.
Continue east along Central Parkway to the corner of Central & Vine.
- Mr. Tarbell Tips His Hat
In this mashup portrait, you see two legendary Jim’s of Cincinnati: Jim Tarbell dressed up as “Peanut Jim” Shelton welcoming you to the city. The latter Jim sold roasted peanuts outside of the old Cincinnati Reds baseball field for nearly 50 years, always dressed to impress in his tuxedo. As for Mr. Tarbell, he’s a businessman and politician who has been a champion both of the arts and of the renewal in Over-the-Rhine.
Turn around and head south across Central Parkway. You’ll see the next mural across the street.
- Homage to Cincinnatus
With this mural we go back–way back to ancient Rome and Cincinnati’s namesake, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. To make a long story short, the city was named after the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of Revolutionary War veterans who looked to the Roman Cincinnatus as their model of civic virtue. Cincinnatus twice served as dictator of Rome, and afterward he was content to return to his farm as an ordinary citizen. The parallel is often drawn with George Washington, who likewise decided to return home after his second term as president.
But we’re here for the mural, which is perhaps most impressive in its forced perspective architecture elements. Artist Richard Haas seems to carve a Roman temple right into the building. Make sure to check out the carefully copied elements of the building’s facade and windows (hint: most of the windows are fake!).
Head towards the mural’s left and down Vine St. Make a right at Court St., and look for a brightly colored mural on the
lsouth side of the street, about half a block down near the intersection of Court & Race.
- Cincinnati Toy Heritage
Another realistic masterpiece by Jonathan Queen, this nostalgic mural shows a collection of toys from Cincinnati’s Kenner Products. Kenner was founded in 1947 and rose to fame when it created the hit Star Wars toys of the 1970’s. Pick out all the classic toys you can, then check the plaque in the lower left corner to see if you missed any.
It’s a bit far out of the way for this walking tour, but I want to mention Cincinnati’s new Black Lives Matter! mural. Painted June 2020 by a team of community artists, it’s an important symbol of the ongoing challenges of equality and the power of public art. It’s on Plum Street in front of city hall, which you can reach by continuing along Court St. and turning left at Plum.
To continue the tour, retrace your steps back to Vine St. and turn right. Walk south for two blocks, passing the library. You’ll see two murals by the parking lot on the southeast corner of 8th & Vine.
- Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon and Mother’s Bouquet
The first mural depicts a flock of passenger pigeons and celebrates Martha, the last of the species. Martha lived at the Cincinnati Zoo until her death in 1914–those are the old zoo buildings in the painting. The story of passenger pigeons is a cautionary tale: they were once the most numerous bird species in the country, but hunting and habitat destruction brought them to extinction.
The next mural is Mother’s Bouquet by Detroit-based artist Louise “Ouzi” Jones. She’s painted colorful floral murals in cities across the US. This one was inspired by flowers in the U.S. Bontanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
This is the last stop! Continue south on Vine St. to return to Fountain Square.
If you haven’t seen enough art yet, check out the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s free and just a block up at Walnut St. and 6th St. You can also stop in the Weston Art Gallery or the gallery of 21c Museum Hotel, both on the same block. At the time of writing, 21c’s gallery is temporarily closed to the public.