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Mural Arts vs. Street Art

Dan's picture

      The more time that passes --- the more time I have to process the "restorative justice" mural tour yesterday, the more problematic I find it... and the mural arts program in general (plus someof the comments made by our tour guide). The question I'm contemplating most now is about the difference between these murals and street art/graffiti. Especially if one (the mural) is combatting/silencing the other.

         Our tour guide mentioned that the mural arts program used to be called The Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti network, and he made some snarky comments whenever we passed (more authentic) street art and graffiti. So if the mural is designed to cover up neighborhood graffiti,  and replace it with something that this (middle class) (outside of the community) organization is planning, sponsoring, and executing, maybe they are silencing the actual artistic spirit and voice of a neighborhood. He vagueling described some "consensus" process that takes place in deciding what goes in the mural, but it sounds to me it works within the confines of what the mural arts project deems appropriate. That was evidenced too by the fact that most of the murals looked the same (except for the really arty one we saw early on in the tour). They had different larger themes, but the styles were pretty formulaic (that's not to say they aren't beautiful murals -- they are). But, thinking about other cities I've been to recently, like Atlanta, GA and Berlin, Germany -- the street are graffiti are incredible. Especially in Berlin. They aren't sponsored and decided by a unified non-profit -- they are made by neighborhood artists, and so the diversity of the artwork is stunning and really brings the city to life (especially because the architecture in Berlin is very dreary due to communist control after WWII).

            My sister was telling me about this new government sponsored project in Atlanta to combat street art and put up murals and how outraged she is about it -- because the art there is incredible, and this sort of power-culture interference will wash away the actual voices of local artists and replace them with "appropriate" art.

         So now, the mural arts projects seems to me like well-wishing liberal, middle class project which is censoring and controlling community expression with an "I know what's best" mentality. Our tour guide even mentioned the fact that their murals often start the process of gentrification in a neighborhood (that's a little problematic?!).

          Perhaps they could grant supplies to exciting, local artists within neighborhoods and see what sort of art is produced. I bet it would be more diverse, authentic, and interesting.



sdane's picture

Remember the historical/political context

I agree with everything that all of you are saying.  But, we all have to remember that Mural Arts originated as part of Mayor Goode’s mission in the 1980s to reduce crime and gentrify the city.  Initially, he didn’t even want to create murals, he just wanted to stop graffiti, in the hopes of making center city a bigger business and shopping district.  It wasn’t until Jane Golden was hired and offered the alternative idea of having murals that the Mural Arts program began. (The Anti-Graffiti Network is still a department in the Mayor’s office and hasn’t really changed.)  Compared to some of Goode’s other “projects” (hello MOVE bombing), providing money to clean up graffiti from people's homes was relatively benign

I actually do see the value in having an organization like Mural Arts in theory – I think it’s great that a big nonprofit can provide arts education and do large scale restorative justice projects the way that individuals or small community groups might not be able to.  What I had a hard time digesting was the lack of respect for other types of street art.  Historically, graffiti has been all about dialogue – artists one-upping one other, and tagging over each other’s creations, but also sharing walls and allowing for different techniques and messages to color the same space.  And, of course, this still exists – Philly has a huge street art scene, with all kinds of graffiti artists, and in reality Mural Arts only makes up a fraction of that.  The problem, then, is that the organization doesn’t want to acknowledge that all sorts of street art can be beautiful (and that beauty is very subjective) and allow for strong mutual respect to develop.  The tour guide seemed proud of the fact that most murals remain untouched by “graffiti,” but wasn’t willing to offer the same kind of respect to others. 

Of course, the larger topic of gentrification (particularly the kind of orchestrated gentrification Mayor Goode advocated) is complex and charged, and goes well beyond putting up murals.

Sasha De La Cruz's picture

So true!


During the tour I was feeling really good about the murals and everything the tour guide was saying. But reading your post, I realize you are completely right. Even though the youth is helping paint the murals, they are not actually making the decision of what to put where. I did not really think about this, but the murals do look similar in a way and sooooo different from actual street art. Also, to add on to the "I know what's best" mentality, all these techniques they use for the art is relatively new to the street artists - I bet if you give them good paint and paintbrushes they'll be able to come up with some amazing piece.

I hope we get to talk about this more in class.

S. Yaeger's picture

Dan,You've expressed a lot


You've expressed a lot of what I was thinking during the tour.  I was especially struck by the tour guide's statement that permission walls are on businesses where the owners don't care about blight because it felt to me like he was actively privileging one form of art over another.  I was also particularly taken aback by his seemingly joyful tone regarding the Steven Starr restaurant taking over the shelter space and his concern for the fate of the mural, but not so much for the men who were displaced.  

I actually looked into the "sameness" of the murals we'd seen, and I think they're all designed by the same group of artists, and that many of the pieces we saw yesterday were designed by the same single artist.  In many ways, it feels like gentrified art bringing gentrification to all neighborhoods.  And, yeah, I think it's really problematic.  

I would love to see more art from local artists who are designing their own pieces and using their own vision to color their environments.  

I wonder if a possible start to this would be getting more property owners to allow their walls to be permission walls.  

Or, possibly, more stuff like this: