On the corner of Union Place and Asylum sits Hartford's equivalent of Mt. Rushmore: the spray-painted likenesses of Mark Twain, Katharine Hepburn and Samuel Colt smiling down on the terrace of Jamie McDonald's newly opened restaurant Chango Rosa.
The mural was painted by Ryan "ARCY" Christenson, a Wallingford native, during a 14-hour stretch. McDonald, who also owns Bear's Smokehouse and Blind Pig Pizza Co., says he decided against putting up normal restaurant signage for his newest restaurant, opting instead for a mural from a local artist.
"It's such a visible corner," McDonald said. "I'd have to guess thousands of people drive by every day. It gives a little bit of life back to the corner, and it's something new for the city."
Christenson, 29, has never had formal training to become an artist and grew up a disciple of Connecticut's graffiti scene, discovering works of street art he calls "hidden gems."
"Even though it wasn't done legally, they're beautiful pieces of work done by immensely talented artists that are hidden throughout the state," he said.
Christenson studied horticulture at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, intending to carry on his family's lawn care business. But life, he said, has a way of confounding the predictable.
In 2012 he quit landscaping and started painting full-time, and today he's managed to turn his graffiti fascination into a career, one that's taken him across the country on a live painting tour and overseas. He created an installation in March at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in Australia, and in August he'll travel to Dublin, Ireland, to paint a mural.
"I never thought I'd make a living doing this, never thought I'd support my family doing this," he said. "It's proof that life turns in all different directions, and you never know what to expect."
Graffiti has become less stigmatized and the public's appetite for street art is growing, Christenson said. He sees graffiti as an art form more democratic than traditional gallery works — it's encountered in the open air, on the way to work, on the way home from school.
"It reaches people young and old," he said. "You don't have to be sophisticated, middle-aged — the type of people who would be going into a gallery. Everybody can enjoy this."
In the mural, Christenson and McDonald wanted to pay homage to Hartford's most illustrious residents, and Twain was the first who came to mind, Christenson said. "Right off the bat I was like, 'Let's work with Mark Twain,'" he said. "He's a hometown hero." McDonald settled on Hepburn and Colt to round out the triptych.
As a Connecticut native, painting a mural of three of Hartford's greats just a stone's throw from the capital building was "a blessing," Christenson said.
"As an artist, you work so hard to get to a platform where your art is noticed and appreciated," he said. "For people to be able to respect it, for people to be able to sit and enjoy lunch with their family and watch this art being created in front of them, it's a blessing for me to have the opportunity to do it."
Hidden in the mural, he added, is a small silhouette of Mickey Mouse. It's his calling card of sorts, one that started in 2015 when he was on his first nationwide tour and found himself missing his two sons.
"I started putting hidden Mickeys in every piece, and I'd send them back home and they'd immediately look for them," he said.
His sons, now 3 and 5 years old, are "crazy about Disney," and their father has a work on permanent display in the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, Mo.
As for visiting Disneyland? "We're planning a trip next summer," Christenson said.