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The Man Behind The Murals: State College Native Shares Stories & Activism Through Art

As you walk around downtown State College, you may notice vibrant and unique murals that brighten up Happy Valley. Maybe, you’re even wondering who the brain behind the art is.

State College native Michael Angelo Pilato has been making an impact around downtown and campus through his murals and artistic visions since he was in seventh grade and is back in town to continue his legacy.

“I started painting murals to make the place look better,” Pilato said. “To take an ugly wall and make it look better.”

Growing up, Pilato, along with his sister and twin brother Mark Anthony Pilato, were raised to become artists. With his mother co-creating Arts Fest and his father teaching at Penn State, art and creativity was in his blood.

At just five years old, Pilato and his twin sold art pieces during Arts Fest, quickly realizing his true passion wasn’t just making art. It was inspiring people with his creations that resonated with Pilato.

During his teenage years, that passion and love for the arts grew as the years went on. As a student in the State College Area High School alternative program, Pilato was given the opportunity to learn in a more authentic and immersive environment, rather than learning in a boring classroom.

Continuing his artistic path, Pilato studied at the Philadelphia University of the Arts before traveling to Canada for animation school. After graduation, Pilato came back to State College to help crate Penn State’s first animation department.

For the last 25 years, Pilato has joined forces with another local artist, Yuriy Karabash, expanding on his previous murals and transforming downtown into a beautiful work of art. The duo has since worked on what they call “inspiration murals” in different towns across the country including, Williamsport, Orlando, and of course, State College.

“I started painting people who inspired me,” Pilato said. “I would go to those people and they would tell me about who inspired them… There are people from the murals, every mural, with somebody from one town to the other who has made an impact that connects each town together in some way.”

These inspirational murals were designed to tell the stories of the influential people of each community while honoring bereaved community members with halos to carry on their memories. Pilato would reach out to their family and community members to showcase their story in art form, encouraging them to fill the murals with their handprints to give his work a deeper meaning.

“You’re looking at people from the past and the present and the hand prints represent the future,” Pilato said. “Everybody has one thing in common: they found something in their life that inspires them. But, they also surround themselves with passionate people.”

Pilato uses his own tragedy, his daughter’s death, to motivate him to keep on creating and spreading awareness of the people and events he draws about.

Pilato managed to transform his pieces into activism with bold statements and real-world issues and the intention of helping community members carry on the legacies of people who faced traumatic deaths or people with interesting stories. For roughly seven years, right before his return to State College, Pilato worked with the community of Orlando to remember and honor the Pulse Nightclub shooting of 2016.

“Yuriy and I say our paintbrushes are our weapons,” Pilato said. “I’m not a violent person, I can’t fight. But, I can fight those bastards that took those lives by making their memories even stronger… That’s my true love.”

His acts of activism don’t stop there. Every year on September 11, Pilato stays awake for 48 hours straight to add to his murals with fallen victims of the community and honor the national disaster.

“I was going 80 hours straight sometimes because I don’t stop until I finish with the piece I’m working on,” Pilato said. “I’ll learn a story of somebody that was killed in that community and carry on their memory. I want to remind people to truly never forget.”

As an artist and activist, Pilato has broken many barriers throughout his career, such as being the first artist to draw 3D designs while wearing 3D glasses. Most recently, Pilato and Karabash finished a mural complete with 3D aspects, which they’ve been working on since his return, that hangs across the Rivera apartment building.

Looking toward the future, the pair have several plans in the works to continue acts of inspiration and activism not only around State College but around the world.

“We want to do inspiration murals around the world and connect them all together on the Internet to make one big mural called the ‘World Mural’ to show how we all love the same, our stories are the same, even our enemies have the same stories we do,” Pilato shared. “In a lot of cases, they’re fighting for their families just like we are.”

Additionally, Pilato plans to make an app that allows students and Penn Staters to interact with his inspirational mural. By tapping on a person with a mobile device, they will have access to the story and background of each person. Further down the line, Pilato plans to collaborate with a writer to publish a book about his inspiration mural and another about his life.

“I’m looking forward to this time of my life to give back a lot and to really do something I never did before,” Pilato said. “I want to focus on the students and educate what I know to them so they can help like I did when I was their age, make our community look better through art, whether it be abstract realism, sculptural, installations, [or] music.”

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a junior broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your tips, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @evan.halfen or email: [email protected]

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