New Pride mural in Des Moines to ‘roll out the welcome mat’ for LGBTQ+ community

A picture from the official presentation of the Pride mural in the East Village, a line of people stand on the rainbow mural with artist Cat Rocketship at the mic.

Pride mural unveiling in the East Village on May 28, 2024. Photo by Avery Staker

By Nikoel Hytrek

May 29, 2024

A new mural has opened in Des Moines’ East Village to emphasize the city welcomes the LGBTQ+ community.

For weeks, four corners at the intersection of Grand Avenue and East Fifth Street in Des Moines’ East Village have been turning rainbow colors.

On Tuesday, just days before the beginning of Pride Month, Capital City Pride officially presented the newest mural in the neighborhood—an interpretation of the Progress Pride Flag, created in 2018 by Daniel Quasar.

The mural was painted by Des Moines artists Cat Rocketship and Dani Awesome. They have worked on it since May 8, dealing with foot traffic, sudden downpours, and full days of rain.

Inspired by rainbow crosswalks in other cities, the mural is supposed to show people in the LGBTQ+ community they have a place in Iowa and they are welcome here.

“Representation and visibility are essential—particularly right here in this space, in the shadow of that building,” said Hillary Gardner, Capital City Pride chair while gesturing to the Iowa Capitol Building, which is only blocks away from the intersection.

In the 2024 Iowa legislative session, 40 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced and 39 of them failed. In 2023, Republicans passed laws to ban access to gender-affirming care and required schools to eliminate mentions of LGBTQ+ topics or individuals. In 2022, Republicans passed a law banning trans girls from competing in school sports.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the loud negativity, Gardner said. Which is why reasserting the fact that LGBTQ+ people are regular members of the Iowa community, just like any other Iowan, is so important.

“I have a queer child who will never make their home here. This is not welcoming, they don’t feel safe here,” Gardner said. “For me, anything that we can do to make this community more welcoming, and make more people feel more seen and loved at home is important.

The sidewalk murals have been in the works for years, she said. Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy and Des Moines City Councilors Josh Mandelbaum and Mike Simonson helped fundraise and work out the logistics of the location.

The artists said they’ve loved working on the mural because it gave them a chance to celebrate their community and try something new.

“It’s fun for me because every mural gives you a new opportunity to problem-solve,” Cat Rocketship said.

They had to figure out what kind of paint would work best on the sidewalk, how to measure the piece across four, uneven curbs, and how to combat the rainy, stormy weather.

“We decided to start with the forward-facing arrow and leave that as it was to remind us to keep moving forward and to remind us who makes up the community—the Black, the brown, the trans and intersex organizers, especially—that have been involved in the LGBTQ community,” Rocketship said. “From there, we really wanted to interpret the stripes as a wild and wonderful invitation to people to bring their joy into the space, so we’ve got this path that sort of wanders around the four corners of the intersection.”

While they worked, Dani Awesome said the whole East Village community was supportive. People honked their horns and yelled encouragement from windows. The businesses standing on the corners helped balance the needs of customers and the artists.

“I just hope anybody who needs it is seeing it,” she said. “We’ve all had tough times and we are going through a tough period in this state. And I think people need to see this right now. I hope that people are able to see this and feel welcome and know that we’re here.”

The East Village has long been a cornerstone of the LGBTQ+ community in Des Moines. Awesome said the Blazing Saddle—Iowa’s oldest gay bar—and Capital City Pride have been key parts of keeping the community together over the years, especially as the legislature has become more hostile to LGBTQ+ rights.

“We’ve been to several different cities where they had the murals, the crosswalks, the rainbows. And it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey, you’re here and we tolerate you.’ It’s like: We’re happy. Look at this. This is your neighborhood. This is your spot,” she said. “It’s rolling out the welcome mat.”

“When you go to a city and you see it, you feel like it’s that reminder: ‘Oh, I’m not the only one here. I’m a visitor and I know I have a community,'” Rocketship said.

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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