Wynwood Walls,” Phillip Pessar

October 23, 2019; New York Times

Public art has a way of capturing imaginations, of creating moments when you stop and consider with your whole self.

It does this in part by telling shared stories, by touching in some experiential way the souls of the people, experiences, and events that mold and shape a community. While there are many types of public art, perhaps the best known is the mural.

Murals as an art form date back hundreds of years, with some sources noting the earliest form of murals can be seen in millennia-old cave paintings found in southern France. Undoubtedly, murals have made an indelible mark on communities around the world, both as a form of expression, as well as an artistic illustration of political opinions, religious statements, and community values.

In Miami’s Wynwood district, more than 200 murals are scattered throughout 50 blocks, detailing the history of the neighborhood and serving as an outlet for social justice and political commentary for resident and nonresident artists. As Joseph Treaster notes in the New York Times, the scope of these projects is comprehensive, incorporating dozens of themes by local and regional artists, and reclaiming the district’s rich history. Furthermore, while many of the artists are not from the area, they have converged in Miami and added their signature to the kaleidoscope of images imprinted throughout Wynwood.

Wynwood dates back to the early 1900s, when Josiah Chaille and Hugh Anderson purchased farmland, which was subdivided for development. By the 1920s, a thriving garment industry emerged, which grew over the next eight decades. By the 1960s, the garment district boomed with hundreds of retailers and manufacturers, employing large numbers of immigrants that came to the Miami area. By 1980, the Miami Fashion District was the third-largest garment district in the country.

As with other industries, garment manufacturing steeply declined, leaving many buildings empty and causing a deterioration of the area as many people left for neighboring suburbs. In the early 2000s, Wynwood saw a flurry of investments that set the stage for the emerging, vibrant arts community that embraced murals on the historic buildings of yesteryear.

While the transformation of Wynwood is impressive, and somewhat represents a pinnacle of modern muralism, it is important to note that the murals throughout history represent a point-in-time reflection of the pervasive values of the day. And for every mural that is celebrated today as an indicator of social progress, artistic license, and as a marker of preference, it is important not to minimize the history of murals and the broader context and role they have played in telling stories of often unheard voices.

Take, for instance, the Chicago Mural Movement, started in the early 1960s by William Walker as a way to honor the black heroes and beautify the community. As Walker put it, murals stood as a way to reclaim the stories of lives left behind:

Our murals will continue to speak of the liberation struggles of black and Third World peoples; they will record history, speak of today, and project toward the future. They will speak to an end of war, racism and repression; of love, of beauty; of life. We want to restore an image of full humanity to the people, to place art in its true context—into life.

This sentiment captures the spirit of public art better than others. And while some muralists simply seek to make a name for themselves, splashing colors and canvassing buildings with cryptic and interpretive demonstrations of their opinion and talent, we must not forget that the inclusion of public voices in the public art process is essential.

While cities across the country have embraced the reboot of murals as a strategy for community revitalization, with cities like Tacoma, Denver, and Albuquerque hosting hundreds of murals throughout their urban areas, the murals that should stand out the most often don’t have the attention that they need. This is where nonprofits come in.

As NPQ reported in 2016, Groundswell, a nonprofit in New York City, provides avenues for young people to integrate their voice and perspectives into art murals around New York. By bringing together artists, youth, and community organizations, Groundswell positively impacts the lives of young people, building skills and self-confidence, while showing them that their voices actually matter.

Similarly, NPQ has reported on Better Family Life in St. Louis, which has a thriving cultural arts and mural program that integrates cultural and artistic traditions from the people of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. This program has addressed neighborhood blight by integrating cultural art to restore and repurpose blighted buildings. What’s more is that by highlighting the distinct cultural art from around the world, Better Family Life raises awareness of the discrete, yet interconnected cultural threads that are woven throughout St. Louis.

Finally, nonprofits are using murals to actually improve public safety. As NPQ reported last November, nonprofits like Charleston Moves have used murals as part of a public safety and creative placemaking strategy. As NPQ noted, this effort recruited artists to paint crosswalk murals throughout the 7.8-mile West Ashley Greenway to address crosswalk visibility along three main crosswalks. This effort is similar to Portland, Oregon’s Village Building Convergence, an annual event that includes intersection repair and mural installation. The event is organized and hosted by City Repair, a nonprofit dedicated to building community by doing community.

Ultimately, the successful use of murals in places like Wynwood reminds us of the importance of integrating public art into the built environment. At the same time, cities must balance the trendiness of murals with the authentic and important role that public art plays in lifting up voices that are marginalized.

As nonprofits look at their own communities, they should consider revisiting murals as a strategy for community engagement that is used to tell the stories of triumph, struggle, and inequality that are embedded in the fabric of society. By doing so, they can recommit public art to being a treasured outlet for often overlooked community members to share their voice and perspectives, rather than a quick fix to systemic disinvestment or a boost to gentrification.—Derrick Rhayn