The Main Bar's Octopus Mural: How a Quirky Creation Came to Adorn a Downtown Columbus Dive
The short but beautiful life of the Downtown dive’s signature al fresco art
“It was doomed from day one.” So thought designer and illustrator Dylan Menges of the bright purple octopus arm (grasping a beer, of course) he and two friends painted on the side of the historic dive The Main Bar in 2016. “We had no budget. The surface was crumbling stucco. And it was a demolition target."
But they painted the mural anyway, and it lasted longer than anyone expected. That included Main Bar co-owner Jim Velio, who quickly agreed to their plan when it was proposed by Amy Turn Sharp, a fan of the joint and the colorful mix of patrons she saw come and go from it, via her fifth-floor office window across High Street. By day, Sharp works as a writer and strategist for digital agency IBM iX; nights and weekends, she writes poetry and dreams up ambitious creative projects—like a 20-by-12-foot mural on a watering hole she and her coworkers loved.
Only in The Main Bar, says Sharp, would you see government workers, businesspeople, lawyers and someone who just got out of jail all drinking together. The Franklin County Courthouse is on the next block; a bail bonds business occupied the second floor.
Alas, Menges’ doomsday prediction proved correct. The Main Bar closed in February, killed off partly by the pandemic but more by redevelopment, and the building is slated to be razed for a yet-to-be-determined use by property owner Scott Schiff. Built in 1890 as the Hare and Corbin saloon, it was a holdout amid new construction in every direction. In 2015, it was placed on a “most endangered buildings” list by preservationists at Columbus Landmarks.
Then came the mural. When she pitched the idea to Velio, Sharp knew Menges was the perfect person to design it. They had collaborated previously, on a large collage of hand-drawn expressions that decorate the IBM iX offices. A former corporate design strategist, Menges had recently gone solo and was game for any opportunity to flex his skills in public.
Working from a digital sketch Menges projected on the wall, they slathered on gobs of paint to cover the rough, crumbling surface. “We just kept packing paint into it,” says Menges. “I like the lesson of working with what you’ve got. It reminded us that being scrappy is good.”
It took just a few days to complete. “We knew it was going to be beautiful from far away,” says Sharp. “But you didn’t want to get up too close.”
Why an octopus? “Jim told us we could draw anything we wanted, so I knew it would be an animal I love,” says Menges. “Tentacles can be really curvy and fun.” He wanted it to speak to two audiences. For drivers, there was the huge name and bright color; for pedestrians, there were smaller details, like the sailor beckoned by a mermaid. The mural extended to a fence that surrounded a small patio, where Menges added a favorite line from one of Sharp’s poems: “Kiss me like a left hook.”
Velio, says Menges, was ecstatic with it. None of them thought it would be there five years later—an achievement, even as demolition finally closes in. “There’s something incredibly satisfying about outdoor work, the idea that you’re adding life to the neighborhood,” Menges says. “The thing held up like a champ.”
Editor’s note: The Columbus Downtown Commission voted on June 22 to approve the demolition of the building, though owner Scott Schiff didn’t offer any specific redevelopment plans.