PEORIA — The new mural on the UFS Downtown Outlet Center in Peoria is the largest piece of art Bradley University student Mike Brown has ever created.

The brightly colored 20-foot by 50-foot mural draws upon Brown’s love for science fiction and graffiti.

“I get lots of comments from people walking by,” said Brown while pausing from his work earlier this month. “Some people think it’s a Halloween mural, and some think it’s about industry, because it’s in this industrial district. And with the moon in the middle, some people are seeing it as a comment on the state of the environment.”

Everyone’s right — the abstract painting is open to all interpretations, said Brown.

A native of Tinley Park, Brown, 33, moved to Peoria three years ago to complete his masters in fine art degree at BU. He’s graduating in December, and the mural is part of his thesis exhibition.

Brown began making art early in life. In sixth grade he decided to become a tattoo artist, and at 16 he started doing graffiti.

“I lived in a nice area and you couldn’t paint on public walls, so I put up a tarp in my garage and started doing characters and working on lettering,” said Brown.

One weekend when his parents were out of town Brown painted the garage door.

“I drew my name “Mike” with an octopus wrapping his tentacles through the letters,” said Brown “It drew a lot of attention, but my parents weren’t thrilled. I later painted over it.”

When Brown discovered the permission wall at a nearby skate park, both his world and his understanding of art began to expand.

“You didn’t have to get permission — you could go at anytime and paint on it,” said Brown. “That’s when I started meeting other graffiti artists.”

He became friends with a group of artists from Northwest Indiana called CISA, Crazy In-Style Artists.

“They were pioneers of graffiti — they started in the 1980s, and they are all practicing artists,” said Brown, who was invited to the group’s sketch book night where artists listen to music and pass around a book for everyone to sketch in.

“It was a very cool time,” said Brown. “I went from knowing no one in that scene to being a part of that scene.”

Brown was impressed with the level of talent in the group. The more he saw, the more interested he became in expanding his understanding of art. Ultimately he gave up his dream of becoming a tattoo artist and went to art school.

Brown’s work incorporates elements from both graffiti and fine art. In his studio practice, Brown uses oil paint to create portraits so realistic they look like photographs.

Brown’s MFA exhibit at the Heuser Art Center will include a range of his work, from his large-scale graffiti-inspired works, to portraits and doodles. It will include another large mural outside the art center, and inside there will be photographs of the mural at Unclaimed Freight.

“I’m really trying to sell street art. It’s been such a big part of my life it seemed natural for me to do something like that for my final show,” he said.

In recent years, street art has become more accepted as an art form.

“The owner of UFS asked for something that looks like graffiti — he wanted street art,” said Brown. “The fact that a successful business owner wants street art, that speaks volumes about the direction that art is going.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.