I’m not the first human being to be struck by the impact of murals on neighbourhood vitality.  Murals are wonderful because they come from a genuine desire to express something unique to that artist and/ or community.  Lately outdoor murals have become more formalized, but I don’t see this as a bad thing, or as diminishing their authenticity.

Chickens and Citizen Participation

May 2015 099

Source: Author photo, 2015

In my own neighbourhood in Victoria, the local residents’ association got fed up with a rock wall constantly being defaced by random graffiti (not even remotely resembling the artistic kind).  Graffiti is seldom random – it is a form of expression, and responds to blankness.  The resident’s association got that -and knew that the only way to stop it was to put up a mural as an antidote.  The winning concept was then converted to a grid-based plan so that local volunteers could each participate in transferring it to the wall.   The end result you can see in the photo beneath the headline for this blog post.  The story behind it?  Mundane, but locally significant.  People in my neighbourhood are crazy for chickens.  For example, some of our friends who live nearby are even part of a chicken co-operative, where five families share one chicken coop -along with the maintenance duties.  And the orange Volkswagen belongs to a very well-liked longstanding resident who happens to be surrounded by neighbours with chickens.  So the mural has meaning –while everyone can enjoy it, you need to be (or at least talk to) a local to fully appreciate its symbols.

Here are three other mural clusters and individual murals with meaning just waiting for travellers to discover them:

 1. San Francisco’s Mission District

These gorgeous creations started popping up in a neighbourhood many Latino Americans and newcomers chose to live in.  While the area has experienced a lot of gentrification in the past two decades, the murals continue to be created, and to embrace both the local and locally-significant global events.  For a traveler-focused overview on these murals, click here for highlights and tips on the best streets to visit.

2. Belfast’s Murals

Political murals have been a tradition in Belfast since the early 20th century, but during the intense political unrest from the 1960s through 1980s, they grew exponentially.  On a trip to the city three years ago, we took a black cab tour through some of the divided neighbourhoods, given by Catholic driver who had grown up in the area and had married a Protestant woman.  (They have since moved out of the district, to more neutral ground.)  We were struck by the murals –and the fact that even today Belfast remains a city divided, where walls remain, and gates are shut at certain times of day –and year.  There is also a lot of hope in the city too, and many neighbourhoods where walls have come down.

For a powerful, and commentary-free tour through some of these murals, as well as a map showing where they are clustered, click here.

3. Prague’s John Lennon Wall

This is such a hopeful mural, which has had various lifespans over a thirty-year period.  Communism in the Czech Republic created repressive conditions for many in that society.  This was all the more disappointing to its citizens, as many of them (or their parents or grandparents) had initially seen it as a solution to the devastating aftermath of World War II and had democratically elected the first communist government.  By 1980 this frustration, combined with genuine sadness at the killing of musician and peace advocate John Lennon, sparked a desire by Czech students and free speech advocates to honour his life and ideas.  At the time this amounted to a great risk, as this type of activity would have been seen as subversive by the authorities.  The first paintings were whitewashed very quickly- but new ones were added to replace them time and time again.  The wall is on a building owned today by the Knights of the Maltese Cross, who are committed to maintaining it as an important local symbol.  What moves me about this wall story is the persistence the citizens of Prague in doing what they felt was right for their society.  These paintings were themselves a form of free speech, and the larger goal to which the Czech people were aspiring.  For more information on the mural, and directions on getting there, visit this website: http://www.prague.net/john-lennon-wall

Lennon Wall1_blog

John Lennon Wall, Prague, Summer 2015- Author photo

As you’ll note from these stories, murals need more than just artists to create them.  They need a connection to the local people.  They need champions – either to bring them about in the first place, or else to ensure that they are not just painted over.

Murals are such a powerful addition to the urban streetscape, and I highly encourage people to dig into these further for themselves.  For a more in-depth look at many other great urban murals, check out this fabulous posting from the weburbanist’s blog here.  And don’t miss this posting from Mural Routes, a Toronto-based nonprofit whose mission is all about celebrating, promoting, and enabling public mural creation and maintenance.  Click here to access.

 

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