Are murals street art?

Are murals street art?

A mural is generally any art which is applied to a wall, whether directly or indirectly, often in the form of a painting or a drawing. The word mural originates from the Latin word murus or “wall”, and usually will cover most of the surface on which it is placed.

 You don’t have to eat your spinach to enjoy murals as a form of street art (although eating your spinach will make you as strong as Popeye.)
You don’t have to eat your spinach to enjoy murals as a form of street art (although eating your spinach will make you as strong as Popeye.)

Murals can also be a type of street art, which has many different forms and styles. Just like street art, mural art is often a longstanding public art form that expresses religious, political and other cultural messages.

A brief history of murals

Murals have been around for many centuries, tracing back to 30,000 B.C. from the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwest France to the much celebrated and ceremonial murals found in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Mesopotamia, and Rome.

While street art has only been formally named in the recent time span between the 1960s and 1970s, murals are still considered to be a part of the genre. Because it takes so many different forms, street art is like a chameleon.

Street art defined

The definition of street art is hard to pin down because it covers such a broad spectrum of different mediums. It encompasses a variety of forms, including sculptures, performance art and really any art that can be enjoyed for free in multiple public spaces. Street art, just like murals, may be semi-permanent media or it can also apply to outdoor performances or temporary media art forms.

The actual styles and mediums employed with street art do vary quite extensively when compared to murals. One must move beyond the singular vision of street art as mere paintings on a wall and embrace all of its forms. Many cultural forms of art, including dance, music, poetry, and theatre, are considered to be various types of street art, when performed in public spaces and especially outdoors.

Painted street art is a descendant of graffiti. As such it was often performed in the shadows and legal grey areas. Whereas murals have almost always been commissioned and sanctioned works of art. However, street art is coming out of the shadows with many artists either getting permission from property owners or taking advantage of “free walls” that are fair game for new art. The ties between the two forms have strengthened in recent years as street art has sought the same legitimacy as murals.

 Murals like these three exist, in part, to beautify our communities.
Murals like these three exist, in part, to beautify our communities.

A covenant of consent

Muralists have operated under the umbrella of consent with property owners for many years, and that has helped street art solidify its legal standing as individuals come to embrace its many facets.

The recent resurgence in the popularity of mural art has spread to street art as well. From Austin to Augusta and Sacramento to Scranton, communities around the United States and across the globe are putting out the welcome mat for both formats.

Community leaders have been establishing mural art and street art festivals for its many aesthetic values, the sense of community and unity it engenders among residents, and the goodwill generated within its borders.

Ensuring murals are legal

An offshoot of this has led to municipal governments taking action to address ordinances to ensure that both forms meet certain criteria. The legal steps local government leaders are implementing to ensure mural art functions under certain legal parameters is having the same impact across street art.

People who want to paint murals in the downtown area of Fayetteville, North Carolina, would have to follow certain guidelines under a recent proposal of the city council, who is moving toward establishing a proposed amendment to design guidelines regulating murals for Fayetteville’s historic district, downtown area, and local landmarks.

The issue came to light after a local school academy embarked on a project to paint a 143-foot-long mural called “Captain of Your Fate” on the backside of the school building. City officials realized they did not have design requirements or regulations to regulate murals painted within city corridors when this mural, which depicts children and colorful animals together on a “grand voyage of inspiration and exploration,” was completed earlier this year.

In the city of Elgin, Illinois, near Chicago, the city council amended its zoning ordinance to define what a mural is and to create a permitting process so more artwork can be created in the Center City District without requiring artists to go through the local cultural arts commission.

Their amendment defines a mural as a “hand painted or handmade work of visual art that is either affixed to or painted directly on the exterior wall of a structure with the permission of a property owner.”

 I would go here or there…I would go anywhere…to enjoy mural art that celebrates Dr. Seuss.
I would go here or there…I would go anywhere…to enjoy mural art that celebrates Dr. Seuss.

The zoning change makes it easier for murals to be added to privately owned properties by obtaining a permit from the city without government technically having a say in the content. The regulation does, however, prohibit profanity, vulgarity and other inappropriate or obscene messages.

Additionally, their Public Art Plan has helped the city develop a system for cataloging, maintaining and overseeing its existing art collection and create a program so new pieces can be purchased. The commission has also started other initiatives, including Donate-A-Wall, the Privately Sponsored Public Art Program, and the Neighborhood Public Art Grant.

In the city of Humboldt, Ontario, Canada, the local public art committee decided to enhance the beautification of the city landscape by reaching out to community residents interested in housing murals on their buildings as a way to “increase access to public (or street) art in the city.”

“We’re just looking for public input in places to put murals, or updating existing murals. We have some ideas within our committee regarding some things we could do, but we just want to get a wider scope on what people think,” said Barrie Broad, Chairperson for the Public Art Committee.

The committee hopes that cooperation from business owners will go a long way towards installing new murals, and in turn, breath new life into the city’s landscape.

“Public art helps create a sense of community and fosters a sense of belonging and pride for residents. Our Humboldt public art reflects our culture which can be used to market the unique qualities of our city,” noted Broad.

Some current examples of public art in Humboldt include the Canada 150 Mural Mosaic on the SaskTel building and the Urban Lukan Silhouette Series scattered throughout the city.

 A common theme of murals is that they deliver a political, religious or social message.
A common theme of murals is that they deliver a political, religious or social message.

The accessibility of street art and mural art

As you can see, the common thread in embracing and encouraging more murals is the concept of accessibility for the public so that this form can be enjoyed for free, unlike an art museum that charges an admission fee. This certainly solidifies the argument that murals are a vital part of the street art movement.

Given that street art is defined by its accessibility, some argue that mural art, because it is almost always outdoors, makes it the most accessible of all art forms.

The makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon certainly have this philosophy. Just this year they established the first-ever National Mural Day. A total of 20 cities across the United States, including Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Seattle were selected to accomplish two goals: “make art accessible to communities and to help local artists.”

A brewery representative acknowledged that “murals are the most accessible form of art, and National Mural Day will encourage artists, landlords, and civic institutions to collaborate on creating new murals in their communities.”

Cooperation is the key

A recurring theme in these city ordinances requires cooperation to be an integral part of a murals program. It certainly is a win-win for all concerned when cooperation is sought and promulgated. Working together from the start goes a long way towards ensuring that the murals that are painted can be enjoyed for many years to come.

The one undeniable and important hallmark of public art is that it is accessible and available to all, which is certainly the case with murals that are painted outdoors. It costs the viewer nothing to interrupt the flow of their day to momentarily stop, think and enjoy the art he or she is viewing.

All public art, which includes murals, liven our cultural and intellectual experience in sometimes surprising and definitely delightful ways.