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Transforming Communities with City Murals

City murals beautify metropolitan areas, tell community stories, and even encourage city growth. From densely populated urban areas to long stretches of highway, this art form can be a pleasant escape from bare landscapes and plain concrete walls. But, murals mean more to a city than just serving as decorations, because “they bring a lot of joy to the people who live around them,” says Susan Cervantes. “This art has helped to really transform the community.”

"Mexican Museum Barricade Mural Project" © 2016 Precita Eyes Muralists
"Mexican Museum Barricade Mural Project" © 2016 Precita Eyes Muralists

Ms. Cervantes is the co-founder of Precita Eyes Muralists, an inner city non-profit mural arts organization in San Francisco, California. It was created in 1977 with the idea that murals can “enrich and transform urban environments.” Over the years Precita Eyes Muralists created hundreds of murals, refurbished old or damaged public art, as well as provided low-cost art classes and workshops. Currently, the organization is working on a mural outside San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, transforming a two-hundred-foot-long retaining wall into series of images of the community throughout its history.

Precita Eyes Murals prides itself on being community based, which means that a lot of the people that paint the public art works aren’t necessarily artists. Instead, they’re people who live in the community and want to contribute to it, which is why the art form is called "the people's art." The organization has found that this involvement allows the residents to feel especially connected to the artworks. “People feel that they own them and that it’s their cultural space, ” states Ms. Cervantes. “It’s important that it’s visible to all their friends and neighbors.”

Ms. Cervantes is proud of all the organization’s success over the past forty years, but she’s especially glad to see how the organization has influenced and inspired other artists to direct their own projects in their own communities. She explains that it has “set a precedent for doing community mural art and building community through murals.”

Indeed, the art form seems to be gaining speed all over the country for various reasons. While Precita Eyes Murals constructs murals to foster a sense of community in a densely populated area, some cities commission murals in hopes that it will spark economic growth.

Nina Chanel Abney Walnut to Cottage, Portraits
Nina Chanel Abney Walnut to Cottage, Portraits

In 2016, Newark completed the second longest mural in the United States (and the longest on the East coast), which is about twenty-five football fields in length. The work, titled “Portraits,” is vibrant and beautiful, with various scenes depicting the history and culture of Newark stretching across the walls of the freeway. Eighteen artists and about a hundred volunteers worked for eight nights to finish the mural.

The reasons for commissioning this work were largely economic. It was funded by the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, and city leaders stated that they hoped it would make the city look more appealing and spur development. The community’s heavy involvement helped it take on a special meaning for the residents. Now completed, “Portraits” stands as a beautiful representation of the community, a tribute to the residents’ pride for their home, and a symbol of their hope for its future.

Community murals bring a sense of pride for a neighborhood or city. But just because murals are loved doesn’t mean that they last forever. The public works of art tend to be outside, hence, murals are often exposed to the elements as well as different types of pollution. “We get requests all the time to restore existing murals that have been up for thirty or forty years,” states Ms. Cervantes. “People really love these murals; and if people want to see them protected or preserved, they contact us so that the mural can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.”

Over the years, the organization has brought new life to many important pieces. Recently, they restored the “500 Years of Resistance Mural,” a mural that celebrates Latin culture, at St. Peter’s Parish. They also restored the “Si Se Puede” mural at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, which pays homage to founder of the United Farm Workers Union. “If it’s important to the owners, and (the mural) is a cultural asset, they’ll have us maintain it on a regular basis, keeping it fresh,” explains Ms. Cervantes.

ride and Groom mural by Kent Twitchell. Mural in Los Angeles, California on the Victor Clothing Company by Claumoho
ride and Groom mural by Kent Twitchell. Mural in Los Angeles, California on the Victor Clothing Company by Claumoho

Yet, not all public works of art are appreciated. Los Angeles- based artist, Kent Twitchell, can attest to this. His 1970s piece, a portrait of an old woman who was affectionately dubbed “The Freeway Lady" was painted over by a billboard company in 1986. Similarly, one of his other murals, “Ed Ruscha Monument” donned the side of a US Department of Labor building beginning in 1978, but was painted over in 2006. After it was destroyed, however, Twitchell sued the US government and twelve other defendants. He ended up settling for $1.1 million, which is believed to be the largest settlement as of yet under the 1979 California Art Preservation Act. While this may seem like a big win for mural artists, it doesn’t make up for years of government push-back and intentional mural “clean ups.”

But Los Angeles isn’t necessarily against murals, in fact, many works have been commissioned by the city as a mode of beautification; ten highway murals were created for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and have proved to be an important addition to the city. These murals, including one of children playing and one depicting a marathon runner crossing a finish line, have given many Angelinos a sense of pride for their city. Many citizens love these works and commuters appreciate getting the chance to admire the art during their infamously grueling commutes.

However, over the last thirty years, many of the Los Angeles Olympic murals have faded due to weather and pollution, and many city dwellers were upset that their murals have not been cared for. This sparked a large-scale preservation effort lead by Caltrans and the City Cultural Affairs Department to refurbish the highway murals and preserve them for future generations. While many of the paintings were restored, three our of five were unfortunately beyond repair.

Despite the challenges of keeping murals bright, the benefit that they provide to a community makes them well worth the cost. As long as there’s free space on a wall, someone will surely want to tell the story of the people who live there.


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