This article was originally published by The Charlotte Observer on January 25, 2017.

It’s a comic strip about the Hornets, kind of. And it’s public art 160 feet long.

Public art in Charlotte traditionally falls into two camps:

1) “I get it.” Sculptures of human beings, with or without horses, or wall poems that can be scanned at a stoplight. These reveal themselves within seconds.

2) “What the…” (AKA “Looks like a giant Gumby/disco chicken/lost piece from a Tinkertoy set.”) These abstractions range from Il Grande Disco, a downtown landmark for more than 40 years, to “Sun Target,” howled off the Mint Museum of Art’s lawn long ago and banished to the UNCC campus. You can study these for 20 minutes and still discover things.

But the piece going up next month at 2400 South Boulevard falls into a third camp. You can absorb it as a grand blur while riding the Blue Line – that’s the five-second approach — or you can walk up on foot and study it frame by frame. (That’s the 20-minute, scan-every-detail method.)

At first glance, it’ll be a cool pop-art wall on the back side of a parking deck between Autobell Car Wash and Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse, visible only along the Charlotte Rail Trail leading away from uptown. On closer examination, you’ll read a fanciful narrative about the departure and return of the Charlotte Hornets, with a bit of local history thrown in and a mythic villain known as The Loyalist, who has plagued the Queen City since the Revolutionary War.

“The Sting” springs from the minds of writer Shelly Johnson and illustrator Nathan Kelly, both of whom work for MPV Properties – which, along with Truliant, is the main tenant of 2400 South Blvd. and the parking deck behind it. (Don Mathias did the imaginative coloring but, as he lives in Boston, will not make another appearance in this story.)

Back when MPV lived on Morehead Street, these two admired a Meat and Fish Co. sign at Morehead and McDowell: A reproduction of “Mona Lisa,” with the lady holding a butcher’s cleaver. And just as “Mona Lisa” started with a guy making a suggestion to Leonardo da Vinci – “Paint my wife, please” – “The Sting” came about from a casual remark about putting a comic strip on the back of MPV’s new property.

“I initially thought I would do one panel,” says Kelly. “Shelly said, ‘No, let’s cover the whole wall.’ So we ended up with something 4 feet high and about 160 feet across.”

Charlotte Center City Partners has encouraged businesses to beautify the Rail Trail for train riders, walkers (where sidewalks have been installed) or, in the case of MPV, apartment dwellers across the train tracks. Johnson says that, because the property at 2400 was redeveloped last year, the city could mandate that art be part of the redevelopment; if MPV chose not to put any up, the city had the right to do it.

So MPV footed the bill at a cost corporate leaders are keeping to themselves. Johnson and Kelly utilized their words-and-visuals strengths: She’s marketing manager at the commercial real estate firm, while he’s a GIS analyst. (Those cartographers build digital databases, gather and verify information in the field about properties.)

Though neither came from Charlotte – she’s from Phoenix, he from California – they wanted to pay homage to Charlotte history, so “The Sting” starts with a nod to bootleggers and NASCAR before swinging into its basketball story.

Kelly had honed his comic-book chops with the 40-page “Snarl,” in which a detective in a Washington state park has to learn whether an animal, a human or something supernatural committed a series of murders. This time, he drew gentler images with a humorous twist, intricately using light and shadow.

MPV decided not to paint the mural directly onto the deck and turned the project over to Casco Signs in Concord, which expects to install the piece the week of the 30th. “The Sting” is being printed on metal panels predicted to last 10 years and lacquered to prevent weather or taggers from affecting it.

MPV may ultimately create a panel underneath it for visitors to use in selfies or add a plaque identifying the creators. Until then, they’ll be anonymously admired when the Blue Line slides by.

By Lawrence Toppman

The Sting 2400 South Blvd mockupRendering of ‘The Sting’ after installation