A glimpse of outer space. A silhouette drawing back a curtain. Vibrant flowers radiating through an intersection of polygons. Everyone sees something different in the array of images that now pops out of the wall of 621 Bloomfield Avenue. A blank wall facing an empty lot has been transformed by a mural commissioned by Filipe Santos, owner of The Room salon across the avenue to illustrate the positivity he has discovered in Verona.
Santos is approaching the five-year anniversary of The Room, one of four salons he owns in northern New Jersey. The pandemic presented challenges, but Santos and his team creatively managed the business to keep customers safe while generating revenue. And during past year, Santos purchased part of the space across the street that was once entirely occupied by Twin Method Cleaners so that his business could expand.
“It’s a win-win for us and our customers,” says Santos. “During the pandemic, we learned the importance of flexibility in adjusting to changes. We divided our team of six stylists into groups of three on a rotating schedule to ensure social distancing. We increased our hours and opened each day of the week, which helped drive our sales. Adjustments like these helped us grow while other neighboring salons weren’t as fortunate during the pandemic. So when the opportunity came to move to a bigger space, I knew it was the right move.”
Over the past five years, Santos has thrived in Verona, learning how tight-knit the town is from young families just settling down as well as lifelong residents. Santos began to incorporate this theme into his business as a way to promote positivity for all of his customers during the pandemic. His creative motivation made the decision to paint the exposed wall on the side of his new building an easy one.
“I’ve always been a creative person, and working in Verona these past five years made me even more energetic, especially when I work with such awesome people in town,” says Santos. “I wanted to make a mark on this community by adding a splash of color, giving people something new to admire during tough times.”
In early August, Santos shared his idea with his friend Dale Conboy, a tattoo artist from North Carolina and Santos’ first hire for another Santos business, the Jerzey Ink tattoo shop in Harrison. Together, the two brainstormed a mural for the blank wall of the new building to promote the enthusiasm Santos discovered during the past few years while working in Verona.
Since he usually works on body parts far smaller than a wall, Conboy designed a grid to prepare the scale of the mural and plan the color scheme of each design before painting. In just a week, Conboy painted the mural all on his own, with support and supervision from Santos.
“Being able to adjust my abilities on a large scale felt natural once I designed the grid,” says Conboy. “We started by brainstorming a few images that would stop and make people ask questions. We chose a toss-up of outer space, flowers, and nature to turn people’s heads and let the town enjoy something other than an ordinarily painted wall. The mural is open for interpretation, which is what we aimed to accomplish, to make viewers simply wonder.”
Murals are becoming part of the landscape in Verona and other local towns. The Verona Inn commissioned another tattoo artist, Carmelo Sigona, to paint its back and side alley walls last summer, and muralist Alex Cook turned the front yard at 170 Claremont Avenue into a rotating art show during the pandemic. Verona artist Elina Rosenblum has worked on mural projects in Livingston, Maplewood and South Orange. In 2019, the Montclair Center Business Improvement District had 88 artists compete for four mural spots there.
Because Santos’ mural does not advertise The Room through words or symbols, it is considered artwork, not a sign or advertisement, so it did not face the signage restrictions of section 150-7.9 of Verona’s town code. But not every town has been as welcoming to muralists. Cedar Grove authorities recently issued a summons to the owner of Cedar Beans Coffee Joint over a mural on the coffee shop’s back exterior wall.
Santos says feedback from Verona about his mural has been mostly positive. “I am so thankful that the support from the community is nothing short of enthusiastic, as so many customers continue to ask how we formed this idea and share how refreshing it is to see something different in such a familiar place,” he says. “On social media, the main criticism is just a resistance to change or a lack of understanding of the images on the mural, however, that is the point of this design, to think creatively, as there is no intended message behind the artwork.”
Santos’ plan is to move his business to the new space by early November, where not only the physical space will be bigger, but he will also have the opportunity to do more training for stylists at The Room and his other salons: Artists & Architects in Ridgewood, The Artists Room in Montclair, and recent addition Chop in Maplewood. When training new employees in the past, Santos had to close The Room for a few hours each time, which resulted in a loss of revenue.
The new Verona space features an education studio behind the salon space where Santos will be able to train new employees from each of his locations as well as facilitate social media consulting classes while stylists continue to manage appointments. With so much going on behind the wall of the mural, Santos is eager to continue growing his business and inspire the community.
“What was once a vacant space is now filled with color,” Santos says. “While the mural does not have a singular or any specific message, I do want to show everyone that even in the bleakest of times, there is always something to feel inspired about. I want to give back to a community that taught me so much in the most positive way.”