On the exterior wall of local restaurant Brick Oven Pizza, artist Red Boots Ali — whose legal name is Aili Maimaiti –– is painting a mural of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Red Boots Ali officially started working on the mural this past week after years of planning with the owner of Brick Oven Pizza, Kadir Catalbasoglu. Muhammad Ali has been an inspiration for both the artist and the restaurant owner throughout their lives. They chose the boxer as the mural’s subject in order to honor his memory and portray his message of resilience to a new generation.
“I want to make it like New York style, modern art. I want it to be me,” Red Boots Ali said in an interview with the News while working on his mural on Monday night. “Me and the owner, we have a mutual interest, he came in talking about Muhammad Ali. [Ali is] one of the greatest of all time. I always feel like he deserved better — why not at Yale University, with young people, getting inspiration from him.”
Red Boots Ali is a Uighur Chinese muralist who immigrated to the United States five years ago. He is now commuting to New Haven from New York, where he lives, multiple nights a week to work on the piece at Brick Oven. The mural is in the artist’s signature style –– a technique that involves working from a projector and combining 33,000 painted dots to create an image that comes into focus from afar.
Both Red Boots Ali and Catalbasoglu emphasized the importance of representing Muhammad Ali’s resilience in the mural — the boxer is known for his mental toughness. The completed image will be of Muhammad Ali in action, locked in combat with an opponent in the ring.
“Muhammad Ali was an idol for me, a worldwide idol for many millions of people,” Catalbasoglu said. “He teaches us [to] believe in yourself, don’t give up in what you believe, work hard and get what you wanted to get.”
Although Red Boots Ali now works for Amazon in New York City, he completed his bachelor’s degree in fine art and printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2014. As an Uighur Muslim in China, Red Boots Ali watched his people face grave persecution and was disillusioned by the public apathy in response to this crisis.
“Most people just want entertainment,” Red Boots Ali said. “If you give them a lot of stress and depression they will go.”
Red Boots Ali told the News that he believes art has the power to convey messages that people would not listen to otherwise. Both Muhammad Ali’s legacy and the mural itself are symbols of the power of human beings from all backgrounds, he explained.
“Pictures talk by themselves, they inspire people,” Red Boots Ali said. “It’s not a matter of some certain community made this. It’s a matter of some intelligent human being, some beautiful human being made this happen.”
Catalbasoglu, who commissioned the mural, is an art lover and a fan of Red Boots Ali’s work. Years ago, the two men met at a wedding in Washington D.C., where Red Boots Ali was the wedding photographer.
They have been looking to collaborate ever since.
“I’m in pizza art, I’m in an art world already,” Catalbasoglu told the News. “Every pizza pie is a piece of art for me. The way that the tomatoes, the basil and the pepperoni sit on it. My wood-burning oven — every minute, you see a different flame going over the pizzas.”
A mural by Red Boots Ali can also be found at another nearby location – Saray Turkish Restaurant in West Haven. It was Catalbasoglu who initially put Red Boots Ali in touch with the West Haven restaurant.
Murals are becoming a trend around the New Haven area. Recently, a program called Straight Up Art has invited artists to convert ordinary New Haven walls and surfaces into art.
Murals constitute an art form that belongs not only to the artist, but to everyone in a community. Francisco Del Carpio, a Connecticut artist who was selected to paint a mural by Straight Up Art, said that murals “can bring life and color and make a connection with the viewer from a distance.”
“You can become part of the canvas by taking a picture with it,” Del Carpio said. “A mural can transform a building, a street or even a whole area. Art unites people, it increases creativity and is a medium that can help you express in a whole new unique way.”
Red Boots Ali and Catalbasoglu hope that their mural is a positive addition to the New Haven community as a widely accessible piece of art. As a resident of New Haven for the past 30 years, Catalbasoglu told the News that he has a desire to give back and “bring more light to the corner.”
Red Boots Ali also wishes that the mural will inspire young people and artists to pursue their passions.
“I hope people feel happy, and I hope people are surprised,” said Red Boots Ali. “Like oh, a human being made this. You see a lot of dots, 33,000 dots. It’s the strength of the people. Most of us have dreams, we want to do something, like a passion. We need accomplished work to inspire us.”
Brick Oven Pizza is located on the corner of Howe Street and Elm Street.
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