March 5, 2020

Embraced, Deployed and Discarded — Do Murals Risk Becoming the Next Graffiti?

As more cities embrace mural art to beautify themselves and jumpstart economies, where does graffiti come into play? We unpack the complicated dynamics that include shifting perceptions of quality and the interplay between public art and community.

The Spectrum and the Perpetual Argument

We have to look at the different visuals and terminology in play and some (loose) definitions:

  • Hate Speech and Slander: Symbols and script, damages the surface, more overtly targets a vulnerable person or group of people.
  • Vandalism: Hastily and amateurishly scrawled words, graphics or even a fill. Meant to deface the surface and the act can be meant to target a group, person or idea.
  • Graffiti: In the popular understanding, refers to popular and historical styles associated with tagging, especially through spray paint, though the manner used to create graffiti differs. Most often done without approval.
  • Street art: Like everything above, street art is often created in public without the requisite permission, but includes any manner of styles or mediums including three-dimensional work not confined to a wall.
  • Murals: Often refers to the size of the art, which is often two-dimensional and covers most if not all of a wall. Increasingly commissioned.
  • Public Art: Like street art, not confined to a specific style or medium, but created by an artist commissioned by an authority and executed on a space that has the relevant approval.

It’s because of the fluidity of definitions that allows different publicly executed visual art to be packaged differently. Understandably, there’s a lot of endless debate and confusion between what constitutes vandalism, graffiti and street art and every other point around them.

Malleable Perceptions of Quality

Graffiti predates murals as a historical counter-cultural means of expression commonly associated with urban and underprivileged youth, and its perceived “edginess” has been appropriated and discarded as needed by commercial interests.

The case of 5Pointz , a former complex of run-down factory buildings turned exhibition space in Long Island City, Queens, New York City. That conversion happened in 2002, when building owner Jerry Wolkoff commissioned spray-paint artist Meres One (Jonathan Cohen), who helped 5Pointz become a renowned place where street artists could paint legally. But in 2013, Wolkoff had workers whitewashed the over 10,000 paintings there to make way for demolition and the construction of condos.

While the landmark USD $6.75 million lawsuit against Wolkoff was recently upheld, that doesn’t replace what street artists need aside from money: space. As Claire del Sorbo reports in in a Fresno Collective story: “Many of them found work for property owners looking to beautify their buildings, but only under the condition that they would paint aesthetically pleasing murals instead of their trademark graffiti.”

Granted, graffiti was largely seen in a negative light by wider society since its beginnings, and even today, criticism of the art form either writes it off as straight-up vandalism that costs a community or takes specific aim at its trademark style, which is deemed ugly or threatening. But the new commercially and civically-fueled favor given to muralists and their styles — along with the resulting economic displacement of graffiti writers — means there’s going to be hierarchy of styles guised as “quality assurance.”

“It is quite clear that murals are being treated as the solution to graffiti,” says del Sorbo. “In doing so, they are not only helping to gentrify neighborhoods, but murals themselves are a gentrified form of graffiti.”

That comparison is an apt one, especially when we consider the possibility that murals could become what they were meant to replace. In some cases such as the global mural festival POW! WOW!, their influence has been largely a welcome addition to the community as it celebrates its 10-year anniversary. For others, the murals aren’t so clearcut. Columnist Marc Holberg thinks that even in Philadelphia, where its civic embrace of murals means thousands across the city, there needs to be some direction when dishing out that freedom to create on public walls:

“Too many of the newer, trendy ones don’t seem very warm or inviting. I’m not feeling much heart or warmth from this cool (if not cold) blend of graffiti, tattoo art and sci-fi, absolutely beautifully rendered for sure, but oh-so deliberately quirky and edgy and ambiguous. And sometimes, as we see above, deliberately unsettling. Art should move you. But public art shouldn’t move you away. It should enhance our municipal feng shui, not diminish it.”

Ensuing Standoffs

When public art moves into a community, it’s sometimes at odds with the celebrated event we’d imagine. And as our valuations of graffiti and murals as well as of permissible and illegal art become rigid, there’s going to be all sorts of potential in-fighting across different dynamics:

  • Developers vs. residents: Buying out or tearing down homes and businesses for new projects. Alternatively, this could involve commissioning street art to beautify or revitalize an area.

  • Client vs artists: Nothing new, but even when artwork is commissioned, a lower perception of value means there are brands that will try to get the street cred of graffiti for free somehow.
  • Residents vs. artists: Some long-time residents of a community (who might have their own collective art projects) can be concerned when demand for more public art means a draw for more creative types, which impacts the character or economics of that area.
  • Local vs. non-local artists: These long-time residents of a neighborhood can include artists themselves who might not take favorably to the influx of non-local artists who don’t understand the area’s history and dynamics.
  • Graffiti writers vs muralists: When muralists are chosen (or not) to create work in areas frequented by local graffiti taggers or bombers, there’s another layer to the “local vs outsider” dynamic. Most graffiti writers are self-taught while a lot of commissioned muralists might be formally trained. This means there’s not only a dynamic of institutional versus grassroots artists, but also a conflict between words and images.

Graffiti writers, muralists and street artists who’ve been in the game for a while know the unwritten rules of how to respect each other and share the playing field such as by not marking over their peers’ work (for the most part).

The point is that artists that use public surfaces to create — either out of preference or necessity — are categorized based on decisions from largely non-artistic entities. These decisions inevitably connect back to the threat and fear of gentrification displacing long-time and disadvantaged residents or not (another hotly debated topic). 

The Takeaway

One of our previous Analyses on the importance of diverse graphic icons highlighted the importance of space — when something is given a share of limited space, it’s given a platform. As Erika Kim puts it in her original Noun Project article, “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

By no means should everyone be forced to go digital (where space is also restricted, according to Kim) to ensure a continued place to create, but there’s also a limit to what physical space can handle in the eyes of the public in terms of quality and content. 

As more cities hop on the mural art trend as means of economic development (such as in Detroit), it’s going to take a desire for consensus between creatives, communities and cities to ensure there’s always room to paint, the space looks great — and that the mural art of yesterday doesn’t become the graffiti of tomorrow.

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