I saw this amazing mural during a trip to San Francisco’s Mission District, where there are two bazillion or so great murals. This one, however, was actually jaw-dropping. I had to take 12 photos to make this panorama. The mural titled Mujeres Muralistas, and it is painted on the side of the Women’s Building.
Below are four different murals:
~Tom Kramer, in Portland (at Williams Ave and Failing)
~Giant Graffiti Piece in New York City (with, amongst others, Daze, Tkid, Risk, Ovie, Ewok, Cope) (was at 163rd St. and Park…I don’t know if it’s still there)
~Charquipunk, Inti, and Gigi in Arequipa, Peru
~Philly Mural Arts Program (Chesnut b/w 7th and 8th)
Okay, so besides style and location, one of the qualities of these murals that makes them all very different is the process by which they were painted. From the top: Tom Kramer, a well known-Portland artist, painted this mural entirely from his own head (however, of course, with help on the actual painting)
The next mural is a collaboration of an absurdly large number of graffiti writers, each doing their own individual piece, but which come together with the background to make one (more or less) unified painting.
Mural number three was painted by three Chilean graffiti artists that I became a big fan of. They, similar to the New York Graffiti artists above them, each have their own individual style and image that they always paint, and their mural here is a collaboration of those different styles that complete one finished look (if you look, you can see that the birds, the man and tree, and the large face on the right are all done in very different styles).
Then, at the bottom, we have an example of one of the most collaborative mural processes going on in this country, with Philadelphia’s own Mural Arts Program. Philly MAP spends months during the process of designing and painting their murals, during which artists, community members, and various groups (such as students, members of an organization, or prison inmates) discuss the design and imagery, and work together to paint it. They are still led by a lead artist or two, but these artists function largely as facilitators of the people’s vision. (See below post, “Catalyzing…” for more info on that process and the ideas behind it.
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“The mural movement has been a unique experiment in the possibility of a democratic mass culture that is public, authentic, and activist, in opposition to the manipulative culture of alienated spectator-consumers produced by the commercial bourgeois media and the equally alienated obscurantist ‘high’ culture of the elite institutions.” -from Toward A People’s Art: the Contemporary Mural Movement (published 1977)
If you haven’t smashed in your computer with a marxist dictionary yet, the above quote is an amazing (though dense) summary of the community power of murals. At their most community oriented, they bring many different people together to express themselves equally and artistically, and put that expression up for everyone who’s interested (and many of those who are not) to see. And they give art a social power that is often entirely removed in museums and galleries.
If that quote expresses the most community-oriented end of the spectrum, how do the above murals, with their varying degrees of individual and communal/community expression, fit within it? Tom Kramer’s mural is the product of pure individual expression, as are each of the individual tags in the New York graff piece (which are radically individual, because they are simply the names of the artists). The Chilean artists have developed a style of working together with their individual styles; Philly Mural Arts brings together everyone’s ideas into one collective product. But is anything lost during that crossover from individual to community expression? If the quote represents the ultimate standard in democratic, leftist, anti-commercial mural art, should all murals be working towards it?
My first day working with a group of kids from the Blazers’ Boys and Girls Club, I asked the group to draw something important to you. That could be a family member, a friend, a role model, a sports team, a video game, a pair of nice shoes, an ideal, whatever. Something that you’d like to recognize as important.
Over the next month and change, I’ll be working with some of the young people from Boys and Girls Club to learn about, design, and paint a mural. The goal of this exercise was to get the young people thinking about what they feel strong enough about to put out in public.
I’ve been reading a lot about deeply political murals like those of Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera or David Siqueros, with titles like The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos. However, one of the ways murals are most powerful is in empowering people to say what is important to them. A public (and celebrated) expression of individual and community voice. The kids I’m working with are the ones who should, and will, be coming up with a theme and design for the mural. Some of the things that were important to them in their drawings included:
- God and Jesus
- Helping the Homeless
- Kids playing basketball
“What is it that’s important to you about money?” I asked the 7 or 8 year old who had drawn himself standing on a stack of money. “I can use it to by things, like hats or a big house.” “Well, draw that for me then.”
So their theme ideas may not be about the fall of capitalism, but this mural will be completely theirs, and it seems that there’s some power in that alone (“Maybe one of these kids will pick up a brush later in life and remember ‘Hey I painted a mural once!’ and then go out and paint another”, a muralist suggested to me). Besides, there are some really interesting overarching themes (companionship, shelter [both physical and emotional], community) in their suggestions. The hard part of my job will be to draw out and focus some of their ideas, while still keeping the mural a pure expression of their voice. There are enough other social/political/economic forces out there trying to take away or alter that voice. The point of this community mural project is to celebrate it.
And who doesn’t like puppies, anyways?
So, Why Murals?, you might ask. What do giant paintings on the street do that little paintings in a gallery can’t (or don’t)?
Well murals, because of their size, because of their public nature, are able to bring together groups of people; make them work together to decide on a design and then to paint it; cause discussions between both the people involved in the process, and everyone that sees it, that can lead to stronger community or to political action; empower individual voices to feel more comfortable announcing themselves to their local community and to the larger world; and simply inspire creativity and support personal individual expression by giving it a prominent location in our cities (and…hopefully you could someday say…a prominent location in our culture). The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program sums it up: a mural’s most significant contribution is “devotion to a democratic creative process.” The people involved in painting a mural, from the people who come together to design it, to those who paint it, to those who simply walk by it and comment to their friend about it, all become “true democratic citizens” of their city. They engage with and impact their environment and their society.
Murals, then, act as catalysts for many different things (this part is long and more detailed…you don’t have to read it):
1. Community. Not surprisingly, this is probably considered one of the most important qualities of the community mural movement (It also happens that I have the most to say about it). Murals can strengthen and build community. A group of people come together to share their ideas and work together to build their individual perspectives into a “visual voice” that reflects the needs, ideas, desires, wishes, feelings, and expressions of the community, especially for the group that designs and paints the mural.
“Murals are painted with, not just for, their audiences,” writes Philly MAP (Murals Arts Program). For community murals, the process of painting a mural involves listening to the voices of a community. By supporting and including these voices, community and individual stories begin to emerge. The students and artists working on murals become community leaders, examining their neighbors’ and their own hidden histories, listening to stories, and engaging in dialogue. Community needs and values are focused and brought to life through this process, empowering those voices.
2. Politics. By empowering and focusing an individual or community’s issues and desires, discussions are started about these issues. People are made aware, but furthermore, a good mural will cause its viewers to really think about the issue. In this way, murals can actively address political concerns. They also can become rallying points for larger community action (for example, Chicago’s Wall of Respect (now gone), which is considered the first modern community mural in the U.S.).
There is a portable mural (painted on 15 or so large wooden panels) here in Portland called WE SPEAK, which was painted in 1992 in response to the Quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. The mural brought together many different artists to express their opinions on ‘the myth of Columbus’. “1992 also marks 500 years of rich, cultural traditions that have flourished in spite of repression,” the statement declares. “Our mural is an attempt to give voice to these vital stories and historical facts. It is our hope that we will not only improve our ability to live in a multicultural community, but we will empower the children of our communities by combining these various perspectives into a composite picture of the American experience…” This is about building community, but in a specifically political way.
3. Creativity. With art all around you, it’s hard not to want to go out and paint. Creative expression becomes infectious. After looking at murals for two weeks straight I woke up one morning and went out and bought paint supplies, and I haven’t touched a paint brush since 9th grade art class.
Furthermore, murals are all about inclusion. All artists, with years of training or if it’s their first time touching paint, are included in the process. Through that inclusion are empowered to, hopefully, continue doing art (something which is especially important in these days of not enough arts funding in schools). “Community muralists orchestrate design and painting processes that create opportunities for both skilled and less skilled participants to make meaningful contributions to the project,” writes the Chicago Public Art Group.
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It is important here now, I think, to make a distinction between community murals, which are designed and painted through an inclusive and democratic process by the community themselves, and murals designed and painted by individual artists and following their own individual vision. These two forms exist at either end of a spectrum: mural as radical community expression on one end, and mural as radical individual expression on the other. Most murals, it seems, tend to exist somewhere within these two
My question to think about, as I’ve been exploring and reading all about the world of murals, has been: do all murals on this spectrum act as catalysts like I’ve described above? If not, is there value in some of these murals and not others? Where do elaborate graffiti murals, which are extremely individual expressions, fit in to the picture?
Another question is: If the social justice value of a mural occurs in the process of creating it, and the social/political/creative actions it spurs into being, does the art itself even matter? That is, what is the actual piece of art doing? Does it even matter in itself, or is it just a stand-in that represents the democratic processes that have taken place?
Super-long spraypaint World War II Memorial in Vancouver, WA (and there are even a few more panels on left side that I didn’t get). This is painted on the side of a raised train track, across from a small park. Unfortunately (and despite its size) it was pretty hidden away.
Some of the spraypaint work is gorgeous, especially the clouds and the boat forming through the fog (bottom left):
The question above is raised in a history of graffiti that I’ve started reading since arriving a few days ago (3, to be exact) in Portland, Oregon. This question gets at the heart of some of the public art issues that I’ve been thinking about:
The ultimate point seems to be: What kind of city do people want to live in? …It’s the natural impulse of people who are very alive to decorate their environment, make it beautiful. The ultimate question raised by graffiti is: What would a wildly decorated city look like?
-Jamie Bryan in Taking The Train, Joe Austin
My internship is through an organization called Portland Mural Defense (PMD), which consists of three muralists/organizers who have been fighting to change a sign code here in Portland that declares all murals larger than 200 square feet illegal unless they receive permission from the government arts council. In other words, even if you’re a home owner and you commission an artist to paint a wall on the outside of your house, it still would not be legal. PMD has been working with the city to change this law, which currently makes it extremely difficult to paint murals here. Furthermore, what this process means is that, to a certain degree, this governing body can choose which kinds of murals get painted, and which don’t.
This leads us back to one of the basic ideas of art: expressing one’s voice, one’s vision, and putting it into some sort of form for other people to see. In that light, graffiti writers are the artists who are enacting this at the most extreme form of expression. They are literally placing their vision out in the open, for all to view (often going to extreme measures to find the most visible spots), without any concern for the law, safety, or what other members of the community might want to see. You could call it radical self-expression. That self-expression may be considered ugly, or vandalism, but it is certainly vibrantly expressive (what it is expressing, though, is a whole different discussion, and one that depends on the artist or viewer).
Murals are similarly expressive, except maybe without the whole illegality thing. But, as the quote at the beginning of this entry suggests, public art allows individuals and communities to decorate their city according to their vision. It gives them a space and a voice in an urban environment that often socially, politically, economically, or even architecturally denies them those things. And, for me, there’s something very exciting about that self-expression. People have important opinions and visions: and they should get to express those visions and we should get to see them.
These are just some of my thoughts from the first couple days of really delving into the mural world, at least as it exists here in Portland. I hope that applying some of these ideas to the public art work that I’m getting involved with will be really interesting. I’ve already got a whole lot to say about that: I spent the last two days on a mural tour of the city with two different artists who’ve been involved with many of them, and there’s a lot I could write. Some other time in the (hopefully near) future I will.
But in the meanwhile, here are some great murals:
“I will be in Portland, Oregon this summer working with a group of children in the field of Arts Based Community Development. Working with communities to paint murals and other forms of creative expression, these projects will hopefully help to give voice to their personal concerns about a variety of issues surrounding diversity and multiculturalism (such as race relations, gentrification, and environmental problems). ”
- Max Rosen-Long ‘09