Higher Level Art says 'Thank you' to Nelson Mandela with Over-the-Rhine mural

CINCINNATI -- Nelson Mandela spent most of his adult life fighting to change the cultural landscape in South Africa.

Committed to social justice and the betterment of future generations, the former South African president helped better the lives of millions of people across the world.

One of those affected by his actions is 39-year-old Matthew Dayler , an artist and faculty member at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He called Mandela a universal symbol of the fight for "peace and unity."

When the 95-year-old political revolutionary died Dec. 5 in Johannesburg , Dayler wanted to find a way to pay tribute to him.

Within hours of Mandela’s passing, Dayler and a collaborator who chose not to be named began working on a massive mural at 1430 Walnut Street in Over-the-Rhine. The building is managed by Urban Sites .

“I was actually wrapping up a painting job in West Chester … (when) I received a text message from a friend saying (Mandela) died and that I should go paint something,” Dayler recalled. “I rallied, made a couple calls, and by 10:30 p.m. we were making it happen.” 

From 10:30 p.m. on the day of Mandela's death to 3 a.m. the following day, the pair worked to complete their latest collaborative art project "Thank You."

“It was created at the spur of the moment to honor the legacy of such a great man. I just felt it was important to do it," said Dayler, who co-founded the Cincinnati-based art firm Higher Level Art with Danny Babcock in 2008.

The massive work features Mandela's likeness and a traditional graffiti-style script that reads "Thank you” -- a sign of appreciation for a man who spent 27 years in prison fighting for social justice in South Africa before helping to put an end to apartheid in the early 1990s.


Mandela was named his country’s first black president in 1994. More than 1 billion people around the world watched on TV as “Tata” ("Father") was officially sworn in to serve as the "father of the nation."

He served form 1994 to 1999 before leaving office to serve as an informal ambassador for South Africa and work with the Nelson Mandela Foundation , which focuses on combating HIV/AIDS, rural development and school construction.

“This piece is a tribute, a simple thank you to a man who represents the true humanitarian in our society,” Dayler said of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner. “He was a humble man representing peace and unity for all walks of life.”

At a memorial service in Johannesburg, President Barack Obama praised the man known to  his Xhosa clan as "Madiba."  He labeled Mandela  the last great liberator of the 20th century and likened him to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.

The work in OTR is a way for Dayler to promote the continuation of Mandela’s fight against inequality, poverty and discrimination across the globe.

Higher Level Art  is a collection of artists who work together to produce exclusive murals, signs and fine art installations at various local and international sites.

Some of their local pieces include the mural outside the Know Theater and various short-term and long-term projects for Landor Associates, Covington Public Schools and community initiatives throughout Greater Cincinnati.

But the new work dedicated to Mandela in Over-the-Rhine holds a special place in Dayler's heart. It's visible from Walnut Street and its size represents Mandela's larger-than-life status.

"There is no passion to be found playing small -- in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living,” he said.

Dayler thinks of Higher Level Art as a “social news feed” that expresses the "thoughts and sentiments of the moment" through art.

“We like to be the voice of the street, a hand-painted news feed,” said Dayler, adding that the projects the art collaborative works on are determined by "timing and location.”

The combination of Babcock’s extensive scenic and graffiti experience along with Dayler’s figurative and print style works are the foundation of several other tributes they’ve created throughout the city over the years.

Two of the most prominent collaborations include one for Steve Jobs and another dedicated to the tandem of Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson and Terrell Owens when they played for the Bengals.

But the Mandela project has special meaning for Dayler, who intentionally picked a spot in Over-the-Rhine due to its “rich social history” and reemergence in recent years.

“Being allowed to paint it in OTR played a role in the creation of the mural," Dayler said. “(The neighborhood) is microcosm of the happenings elsewhere.”

Dayler believes the neighborhood’s “rich racial and social” histories and commitment to “progress” and “change” in recent years reflects Mandela’s message.

However, like the man it depicts, the mural won't last forever.

"Someone will eventually paint over it or tear down the building it's on," Dayler lamented.

But the artist takes solace in knowing the message behind his work will live on through the people who see it and embrace Mandela's

quest to better the lives of those around him.

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