It all gets real when the poster is unveiled. That's when the promise of the city's biggest arts festival, Piccolo Spoleto, starts to fire the imagination. That's when the first image is paired with the event and when participants and patrons know that something unique is about to begin.

On Thursday morning, Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs introduced its 2014 poster artist, Timothy Banks, and the artwork competitively selected to be the face of the festival.

The colorful image is of a smiling octopus with the cityscape behind it.

"How can you go wrong with the Ravenel Bridge in the background?" Cultural Affairs Director Scott Watson said.

Banks, a Mount Pleasant illustrator and graphic designer, thought up the octopus character early in the process and couldn't shake it from his mind, he said.

"It's Charleston," he said. "For some reason the octopus fit."

Its eight arms arguably represent the multi-faceted festival, with its offerings of dance, music, theater, visual art and more.

"The poster captured the spirit of the festival," Watson said.

And the festival captures the spirit of the city, Mayor Joe Riley said in brief introductory remarks at the Thursday morning announcement.

Riley said the festival, now in its 36th year, is the official outreach arm of Spoleto Festival USA, which runs concurrently, and that it's meant to make the arts as accessible as possible to residents and visitors.

"Almost half the performances are free," he said, adding that the two festivals have transformed the cultural and physical landscape of the city over the course of more than three decades.

Some highlights include:

Sunset Serenade, the annual curtain-raiser at the U.S. Custom House featuring the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (8 p.m. May 23)

Piccolo Fringe, comedy, improv and renegade stagecraft at Theatre 99 (May 23-June 7)

Family Day at Marion Square (May 24)

Youth Music Festival at Second Presbyterian Church (May 25 afternoon)

Sand Sculpting Competition, Isle of Palms (June 7)

Finale at Hampton Park (June 7, afternoon and evening)

Additionally, several area theater companies will be presenting plays and musicals; galleries and churches will host art exhibitions; and musicians of all stripes will perform at venues around town. Some times and dates were not yet available Thursday afternoon, but will soon be published at www.piccolospoleto.com. Other highlights:

The Charleston City Ballet's will perform Stravinky's "Firebird"

The Columbia City Ballet will offer "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Annex Dance Company will present "Out of the Rose" at the City Gallery (6 p.m. June 3)

Laura Ball is organizing a show called "Sing Out!" - a tribute to Pete Seeger at the City Gallery (June 4)

Singer K.B. Solomon will bring his one-man show "Speak Of Me As I Am," a tribute to Paul Robeson

Stan Gill will embody Mark Twain for a final tour of his one-man show at the Footlight Players Theatre

Concerts featuring early music, tunes of the old south, jazz, blues, solo organ, voice recitals and even Anglican anthems and chants are among the music offerings

The Charleston Jazz Orchestra makes its Piccolo debut with three concerts, including one geared toward young listeners

Mepkin Abbey hosts two special performances, one on Memorial Day, another on June 2 featuring the Taylor Festival Choir paying tribute to the late Bishop David Thompson

The Piccolo Spoleto box office, located adjacent to the Spoleto Festival box office at the Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St., opens May 5. A full schedule of events is available at www.piccolospoleto.com.