Behind the Iconic Art That Shapes City Streets - Icon Week

By Rebecca Seidel

Photo courtesy of Overall Murals.

Sometimes it seems like cities are going monochrome. Take, for instance, the fall of 5 Pointz, a hub for graffiti artists and muralists all over the world. Until it was whitewashed in the middle of the night last autumn, it stood out as an oasis of color against the gray industrial backdrop of Long Island City, Queens. Now that it’s slated to be demolished by October and eventually replaced with residential towers, it’s become a mark of a city with a shrinking palette–not to mention a city losing a valuable cultural resource.

When Steve “ESPO” Powers’ mural for Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze album got buffed over with white paint a few weeks ago, it initially struck a similar painful chord. The mural, painted in Philadelphia to appear on the cover of Kurt Vile’s 2013 album, stood its ground since the album’s release. That was until the morning of Jun 28, when a local DJ named Lee Mayjahs buffed over the bulk of it with white paint, stating that he thought it was attracting graffiti to the neighborhood.

Unlike the 5 Pointz fiasco, the damage done to ESPO’s mural ended up being easy to reverse. The owner of the building used a powerwasher to save the day, hosing off the white paint and restoring the Pretty Daze mural to its original state. On top of that, Mayjahs apologized profusely for the uproar he’d caused.

Despite the vastly different circumstances of these two incidents, both cases call our attention to a strange but powerful quality of street murals: they can be just as fleeting as they are iconic. For as long as they last, though, they can breathe new life into cities and even act as a force for social change.

Philadelphia, home to the Kurt Vile wall and thousands of other murals, is a prime example of the power of such street art. The city’s Mural Arts Program, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “transform places, individuals, communities and institutions” through art, has shaped Philadelphia into a world-renowned “City of Murals” that other locations are striving to emulate.

“The way that the Mural Arts Program has done its work for the past 30 years has not been to just take a piece of public art and bop it down in a neighborhood, but actually to involve the neighborhood and let it have a say,” says Cari Feiler Bender, spokesperson for the Mural Arts Program.

The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 as part of Philadelphia’s anti-graffiti network, with muralist Jane Golden at the helm. Golden sought to encourage graffiti writers to redirect their talents, empowering them to revitalize their neighborhoods through mural painting.

Today, the program reaches far beyond that original mission, where its large-scale mural projects rally members of different communities within Philadelphia around common causes. The entire process of creating these murals relies heavily on collaboration and community input, even when the designs themselves are coming from a single artist. Recent projects centered on everything from suicide prevention to restorative justice to combating youth homelessness.

“It’s not just about putting paint on a wall,” Feiler Bender tells BTR. “All of these programs are meant to have in-depth transformation at the heart of [what] they’re trying to do.”

The Kurt Vile mural wasn’t done in conjunction with the Mural Arts Program, although the organization has worked with Steve Powers in the past. They collaborated for Powers’ Love Letter project, completed in 2010, which features 50 rooftop murals and remains an iconic part of the Philly landscape.

One of the murals from Steve Powers’ Love Letter series in Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of Adam Wallacavage for the Mural Arts Program.

Even though the Mural Arts Program has produced more than 3,600 murals in Philadelphia, Feiler Bender says only about 1,800 exist today. As the paint of older murals fades or begins to crumble, they have to decide how to refresh the space. Do they restore the original image or create something new?

“It’s part of what’s great about living in an urban environment and creating art. None of it’s permanent,” she says. “It’s all temporary, to an extent; just some things last more than others.”

Although the Mural Arts Program’s approach is echoing in cities all over the world, plenty of painting companies are harnessing the power of murals in their own ways. Overall Murals, a New York City-based company led by Dmitry Pankov and Angel Saemai, seeks to connect with audiences through a combination of commercial work and public art endeavors.

“Public art campaigns give us a sense of community contribution and creative freedom,” Saemai tells BTR. “Commercial campaigns let us flex our technical expertise while creating iconic advertising in a non-conventional way.”

Overall Murals specialized in hand-painted work. It’s likely that many New Yorkers casually encounter their art without even realizing it, as it stands all over the city. Creating these polished murals, which sometimes appear machine-made, requires involved coordination of materials and labor.

“Typically, it takes around three to five days of in-house prep–including making patterns and mixing colors–and then five to seven days to actually paint, depending on the weather,” Saemai tells BTR. “But we’re working on a project right now at the New School where we’re producing a design by Ruedi Baur on a ceiling area that’s about the same size as the Sistine Chapel! So as you can imagine, a project like that has taken months of careful planning.”

Saemai explains that the intense procedure of producing hand-painted murals is part of what makes them rewarding to create. Surprisingly, it’s also a reason that these pieces tend to be short-lived.

“Most hand-painted murals are only up for two to six months at a time, because part of the appeal of hand-paint versus vinyl is the actual process,” she says. “The public loves to watch us work, and our painters are really good at engaging as sort of temporary brand ambassadors. About half of our crew came from street art backgrounds, too, so they’re used to the cycle of reinvention and evolution that happens on every wall.”

The cycle is exactly what makes street murals so powerful: in addition to bringing together communities and showing off artistic talent, they are a testament to the constantly transforming landscape of city streets.