Murals and Public Opinion

Boston has a reputation for being considered conservative, and this is usually reflected in their public artworks.  Not surprisingly, when the 5,000 square foot mural of a figure in colorful print pants and jacket with a hood was installed over a year ago, there was much public discussion and worry about what it meant – something tied to terrorism?  Why was there a hood over the head and why were the feet bare?  Os Gemeos, a world-renowned group of Brazilian artists were commissioned to paint the mural by the

Photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts
Photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts

in conjunction with the ICA exhibit.  ICA director, Jill Medvedow commented about the work, “Good art gets people talking.”  This is certainly the case when Fox 25 news did a news piece on the mural and a passerby told a reporter that “the painting resembles a terrorist.”  Fox 25 then posted a photo on Facebook and asked for public comments, which turned into an ugly stream of fear and racism.

Os Gemeos painted the mural in spray paint, the typical medium of most graffiti murals and this mural featured a “giant, yellow-colored character in brightly mismatched clothes who appears to have squeezed himself in between the towering buildings that surround him.” Looking at other Os Gemeos murals and artworks it is apparent that the yellow-colored cartoon inspired character is a recurring figure in their work.

A mural was painted in Poughkeepsie, NY during the spring of 2013.  Painted in spray paint, the mural replaced a grey, crumbling boarded-up building on Main Street.  The concept for the mural was a collaboration between four artists.  Rez Ones, also known as TC, was the architect and wanted to ensure that passerby could see a universal message that everyone could connect with.  The message is hard to miss – the middle of the artwork has written, “Style is the message.” Rez Ones commented, “Style is what defines everyone – it is a positive representation of who we all are.”   It is also a reference to Poughkeepsie style – a place of pride that those living in Poughkeepsie can proudly call home. This public art was received with joy by the majority of people living in the immediate vicinity, but there have also been many strong opinions that the mural should be removed.  If good art gets people talking, then this is good art indeed. 

Looking north to Boston, once again, Boston has commissioned a new mural by Matthew Ritchie to replace the Os Gemeos art.  The mural will be installed in September, and this time the work will be abstract – wait, isn’t that the stuff your kid could do?

Another public art controversy

Murals have long been public art that engages with the local population, usually with a message. Looking back at the Mexican Muralist movement, National Mexican treasure, Diego Rivera, painted the history of the Mestizos onto the walls of government buildings, raising their status by linking their culture and traditions to all things that Mexicans had pride. This honor assisted Diego Rivera in being invited to NYC to paint a mural by Nelson Rockefeller at the newly built Rockefeller Center. The theme was to be “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” History reports that Nelson Rockefeller approved the sketches and Diego Rivera completed the mural. When Nelson Rockefeller spotted an image of Lenin in the mural, he demanded Rivera paint out the image – when Rivera refused, the mural was covered up and eventually chipped off the wall of the building.
Even today public art can turn controversial – just recently the Weinstein Co. commissioned murals to commemorate “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 fatal shooting of Oakland’s Oscar Grant in preparation of promoting a movie about the incident. Thinking it would be a great way to promote the movie to a forward-thinking audience, they had problems when it came to reviewing the sketches and requesting artists to make changes in imagery.
Public art is just that – art out in and for the public, however, artists should continue to hold onto their artistic integrity. Murals provoke public commentary and provide a voice for those that frequently are not heard. Are we all listening?,0,852784.story

photo below: Ron English’s “Abraham Obama” mural that went up in Boston on July 4th 2008. Daniel Lahoda is dressed as Lincoln. (Ron English)Image