Frank Napoli and Tom Pepe are beautifying Atlantic City - one brush stroke at a time.
Paint brushes and rollers in hand, they were on the Boardwalk on a recent day, helping to transform a formerly barren half-acre site into an abstract art display of bold geometric patterns.
No, Napoli and Pepe are not latter-day Picassos or Rembrandts. They are members of Painters Union Local 277.
Moreover, they are part of a series of public art projects that are not only giving Atlantic City a tourist-friendly facelift, but are also helping to spruce up the image of local unions.
Famed New York art curator Lance Fung is creating the projects in partnership with the Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing coalition, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that oversees the Tourism District. The trade unions have also gotten involved by supplying manpower and materials - in some cases, for free.
John Talley, director of operations for Fung Collaboratives, explained that unions routinely play a big role in building public projects, but their involvement is too often overshadowed by "bad press."
Talley said that when Fung Collaboratives came to Atlantic City to plan the art projects, the company was warned, "This is a union town.'"
"We had a choice to make: We could either exclude them and possibly have a big rat on our site or we could embrace them," said Talley, referring to the gigantic, inflatable rats that unions often use to protest nonunion construction sites.
Since then, the unions have given their enthusiastic support. At least one of them, Carpenters Local 255, is incorporating the art projects into its apprenticeship program, Talley noted.
The painters union has donated its members for free, helping to reduce the construction costs. The plumbers, electricians and laborers unions also are working on the projects or have expressed interest, Talley said.
For painters Napoli and Pepe, the idea behind the art projects is simple: If the town looks better, it will be more appealing to tourists and families.
"I live only 10 miles from here. I'm up on the Boardwalk all of the time with my wife and family," said Napoli, 46, of Mays Landing. "I think this project makes Atlantic City a lot nicer and will make the tourists come out to see it."
Napoli spoke as the artwork he was painting on the Boardwalk came alive with striking black and white patterns. The site, at California Avenue, features the work of artist John Roloff.
Pepe, who is originally from New York, characterized the Atlantic City art projects as a miniature version of the much-heralded cleanup of 42nd Street within Times Square in the 1990s.
"As long as the community comes together and cleans everything up, it's good for business and good for the residents," said Pepe, 47, of Eastampton Township, Burlington County.
Pepe fondly recalled visiting Atlantic City's Boardwalk and beaches when he was a child. His parents would bring him from their Long Island, N.Y., home.
"As a kid, it was the beaches, the Boardwalk and the amusement parks for me. Now, it's the same thing for my kids."
Another union member, Rich Michel , also spoke of how the art projects have brought so many groups together in a common cause. Michel, a carpenter, was busy caulking holes in a wall that serves as the backdrop for the Boardwalk mural.
"Everyone is coming together. This project really sharpens up the Boardwalk," said Michel, 33, of Carneys Point, Salem County. "It makes it a lot better. It gives tourists something nicer to look at than the trash and dirt that were here before."
Two tourists, Richard and Dot Tully, were attracted to the art display as they strolled the Boardwalk. The Tullys, of Alexandria, Va., were in Atlantic City to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary.
"I think it's nice," Dot Tully said as she watched the mural taking shape. "I like the pattern and the colors. It just drew us over here.
"This is the type of thing that will keep us coming back," she continued. "We love Atlantic City. We come here all the time."