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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

New Mural Tells the History of the Fire Department… Comic Book Style

Tiffany Clark of Mural Machine traces the history of the Dayton Fire Department, from bucket brigades to a big blaze just two years ago, in one of the city's newest and largest paintings.

Dayton's newest mural stretches an entire city block and tells the history of the city’s Fire Department.

It starts at the corner of Main and Buckeye Streets, then runs down Buckeye, all the way to Dayton Fire Station Number Eleven.

For this long mural, Tiffany Clark used classic comic book style, borrowing from mid-century versions of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four.

Jason Reynolds
There are Gem City references throughout the mural, like the $9.37 sticker price on this comic book cover.

She says it was harder than she expected.

“My brain was like, ‘Yeah! Comics! That will be easy!’” Clark says. “But it is not my style and it is a very signature style. It took me a while to figure out how to do it properly.”

Clark was intentional in what characters she used to tell each story. For example, she recreated a popular 1970s Black Panther comic book cover, but now it’s Dayton’s first black firefighter, Radolph Tams, who joined the force in 1907.

She says she learned a lot of Dayton history over the four months the mural took to complete.

“I didn’t know that the Victoria Theater burned down once upon a time. It was one of our bigger fires, and considering how many times I’ve been in that building, I was surprised.”

In this pandemic year, Clark says she found inspiration in how people raised money and rebuilt after the great flood of 1913, which led to over 400 deaths.

The flood “really created our whole systems of dams around here,” she says. “It was the frustration and sadness of everyone, coming together and deciding to make a change around the Miami Valley to keep us safe. I thought that was kind of nice during these times, too.”

Jason Reynolds
Clark's mural is a timeline of Dayton's most memorable fires and advancements in firefighting technology.

Dennis Bristow and Jim Burneka are members of Dayton Firefighters Local 136. They pitched the comic book idea, wrote parts of it, and worked with the department historian to get archival drawings and photos for Clark. So, whether she was painting a bucket bridge from the 1800s or recreating a big blaze from just a few years back, her work was accurate.

“That's the really cool thing about our mural,” Bristow says. “On the wall, you’ll see ‘The Amazing Fire Engine,’ kind of like ‘The Amazing Spider Man.’ Well, what’s illustrated there isn’t some Google searched, horse-drawn steam engine. That’s the City of Dayton’s first steam engine. And that entire mural—we figure it to be 600 feet long—every panel in there is the real deal.”

Jim Burneka says some of the history on the wall isn’t just Dayton history. It’s global firefighting history. Like the time a Sherwin-Williams paint warehouse went up in flames, and the Fire Chief decided to NOT put it out.

Jason Reynolds
The Sherwin-Williams paint fire in 1987 put the city's water supply in danger, forcing the department to do something unprecedented. They let it burn.

“Think about Sherwin-Williams. Think about the amount of paint they had, and it’s all on fire. And where it’s located, it’s on the city’s aquifer. So, it’s the water source for all the citizens across Dayton. If we would have used our fire hoses and added water to it, it would have got down into the water system and contaminated all of our drinking water. So, what they did—it was very controversial at the time—they just let it burn,” Burneka says.

That decision sparked a lot of conversation among fire experts, and it quickly went from controversial to precedent setting.

The mural has over 20 panels. Each one tells a memorable story, but Bristow says the department isn’t trying to toot its own horn. Instead, the beautification project is meant to send a message to Daytonians as they head into the city center.

“As you’re coming down Main Street there, you’re kind of entering downtown and you can see it pretty well,” he says. “There’s no better way I can think of to show the citizens of the City of Dayton that we’re here to serve you and we’re proud you serve you. That was the big thing. Trying to find something that would convey that, and Tiffany hit it out of the park.

Clark and the fire department will be working together in the future, too. They’ll be selling prints of images from the mural, and some of the proceeds will benefit the local fire fighters.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and supported by WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.