People Issue

When Frank Campagna Made His Home in Deep Ellum, He Began to Paint the Walls

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

He's the unofficial father of mural art in Deep Ellum, but maybe it's time we made it official. For three decades now, Frank Campagna has been painting Elm, Main and Commerce streets. You know his art, even if you don't know that you know it.


People use his murals for directional signals and engagement photo backdrops. It vivifies memories of late, hazy nights spent at the Gypsy Tea Room or wandering the streets after a concert. He gave the neighborhood a bit of soul and in turn, Deep Ellum gave him a home.

"I couldn't stand Dallas when my parents moved here. The houses all looked the same and everything was shiny and new," Campagna remembers. "Then, I found Deep Ellum. It had a heart, an individuality."

Campagna's smile is both warm and gruff, and his gravely voice offers hearty greetings to the artists, collectors and curious passersby at Kettle Art Gallery. When Campagna opened the doors to the gallery in 2005, the Dallas art scene was moving toward a new era of international acclaim with the glitzy new arts district and the galleries in the Design District. Over in Deep Ellum, Campagna stays true to his roots.

"Deep Ellum is the original arts district," Campagna says. "It's not what Dallas wants to be -- it's what Dallas is."

Campagna has been one of the neighborhood's greatest advocates, championing both the local art scene, but also music. The two art forms are closely connected for him and he raised his kids to share his love. Campagna's world was rocked when his son, known to the music community as Frankie 45, and his bandmate committed suicide on New Year's Day 2011. In that devastating wake, Campagna created the 45 Fund, an organization that promotes mental health awareness.

The night we spoke, the neighborhood was rocked by a back-to-back suicides in the music community. Campagna texted me his shock and his heartbreak. Later that weekend, I ran into his partner, Paula Harris, on Main Street outside of Kettle. We hugged and we cried. She said, "It was really a blow to all of us, but Frank took it hard. He loves everyone here so much."

"It's easy for an artist to feel alone," Campagna told me the day we spoke. "Chances are that feeling is a sign that artistically they're doing something right. I want people to know that they should never hesitate to call a friend, just cause you're brokenhearted or depressed. You don't have kill yourself. Call somebody. Call me."