In the coming weeks, San Francisco artists Charley Brown and Mark Evans will be rolling up hundreds of large paintings into tall tubes and shipping them to Dubai, where they will adorn the ceilings and walls of a luxury hotel.
The artists are among a group of American muralists benefiting from a weak dollar and a desire -- especially strong in Asia -- to decorate resorts, public buildings and private homes with images drawing on Western art traditions.
A lot of times they want these hotels to have a more modern, a more Western look, said Vicki Khuzami, a New York artist who painted murals for Tokyo Disneyland in the 1990s.
Brown, 62, and Evans, 57, are finishing up a roughly $700,000 commission for the 1,539-room Atlantis resort in Dubai, where rooms start at $454 a night, to open in September. The hundreds of pieces painted on fireproof muslin cotton fabric will be assembled in Dubai, including murals for seven domes, some of which are 50 feet across.
It used to be that the rest of the world, especially Asia, couldn't afford us coming, said Eric Grohe, 63, a muralist who lives in Washington state. Now we are getting requests from everywhere: South America, Europe, Asia.
About two years ago two things happened. The U.S. dollar had been falling a lot ... and when we first put up our Web site it went on all over the planet, he said. Then we started getting serious requests from India, Pakistan, wherever, and we give them what we would have to charge if we were working here in the United States and nobody blinks an eye.
His projects typically start at $180,000 to $200,000. One work Grohe is now doing for a Florida hospital will cost $320,000, he said.
Mural-style paintings date back deep into human history, perhaps beginning with paintings by people in their caves. Ancient Egyptians decorated their tombs and temples with wall paintings, and Romans also painted their public buildings.
In Europe, the Baroque era from the 17th century brought a flourishing of mural paintings inside the huge interior spaces of churches and majestic palaces.
Many of today's muralists prepare their work in studios to be shipped and assembled later at their ultimate destination. That means American murals can end up in Japan, Dubai, Macau or any other locale that can afford it.
At the Evans & Brown studio, Evans does the initial research and design. In the case of the Dubai commission, he had to stay clear of depicting people, in keeping with Islamic tradition. One dome mural incorporates shell themes, another references Middle Eastern jewelry.
Murals can indeed cause political outrage. An Iranian mural of the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has been an obstacle to full diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Brown then paints the initial full-size themes, and he and up to about a dozen others expand the images in their 84-foot long studio, where walls stretch as high as 16 feet.
It's like juggling plates on several poles, Brown said of the complexity of organizing such large projects.
Many muralists easily imitate a wide variety of styles, from the Rococo flourishes of 18th-century Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to more modern 20th-century styles, leading some artists and art lovers to scoff at the work.
The artwork that people do now is sort of like a diluted, washed-down version of it, said Carlo Marchiori, an artist born near Venice now living in California's Napa Valley.
They have these sterile buildings, especially the big hotels and all that. They are immense areas, he said with a audible sigh. They do this -- how do you call it -- half-assed art. It's formula art.
Despite such criticism, many muralists are anxious to get the big commissions, with the international market seen as particularly lucrative.
It's going to be shifting in that direction because of the market tightening up here in the U.S. as people decide to cut back on spending, said Garrett McCarthy, a Massachusetts-based muralist.
McCarthy, 46, advertises his work on the Dubai section of Craigslist, an Internet bulletin board, and recently signed up Dubai-based Lateral Passages, an agency that promotes muralists.
Samira Hamida, who set up the company a year ago, described a growing appreciation for the work of American muralists even if Indians and others might be willing to work for less money.
American muralists have years of experience in actually delivering high-quality, out-of-the-box sort of murals, she said. In our opinion, American muralists certainly lead in ways of skill and reliability, but that does not mean that European muralists are any less good.
The appeal is especially strong in Dubai where, like Las Vegas, large hotels are spending lots of money on large murals to build a modern city in the desert.
Other markets want the kind of aesthetic found in this country; they want the American or international look, said Les Seymour, a San Francisco artist who has generated a growing amount of business in China and the Far East.