a social and aesthetic defense of murals

By Andrew Manriquez

Murals are Stunning
Life is strange. That is if you sidestep the everyday and pay attention to what’s around you, so that’s exactly what I did one Saturday evening. Frustrated with life, work and everything else, I left my apartment and went to take a walk. I thought it might help, that it might clear my mind and offer new insights or some similar kind of new-age foolishness. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had hardly started, walking that is, when just outside my apartment, as was starting on my way, I stopped. Right in front of me was a woman standing in front of a wall.

Surrounded by paint and brushes, she wasn’t doing anything, just looking at the wall. That was kind of strange. I thought of doing something, but I didn’t know what. After all, my mind needed refreshing and so I continued on my walk. When I came back she was still there, but this time she was franticly sketching something. She moved with a rapidity that belied her initial stillness, as if she was trying to capture something precious before it dissolved from her mind and was gone forever. This went on for three days. Each day I would sit down in front of my apartment steps and watch her. I had no idea what she was trying to do; and each day the piece would change.

The Artist
She would create a line and then erase it with another line and then erase that erasure with another line and this would go on and on all day, over and over again. I’ve never seen someone so decisive in her indecisiveness. None of it made much sense, but there was something so compelling about this awkward and frenzied act of creation that I just sat there watching. Finally, on the fourth day it all came alive! Her colors bounced off the wall and her lines captured the chaos of that bounce and put everything in order. We hardly get to see the world transform in front of us and yet there it was.

I later learned her name: Lauren Young Smith. She’s had an interesting career. A writing major at Stanford University, she got a job at Dream Works Animation, but left because it wasn’t her thing. From there she worked for Juxtapoz magazine, decided to move to the Bay Area and became a freelance illustrator where she has been working ever since. Somehow she started creating murals and I was the lucky beneficiary of her oddball journey to the side of the wall by my apartment. So, this is what I saw.

This is what I saw
The two main figures were surreal to say the least: gigantic fish figures, their mouths opened wide and in each mouth a woman’s face peering out. It’s a striking image and you can’t look away from it, but what keeps your attention is Smith’s masterful technique. For instance, the way she varies the weight of her lines makes it seem as if these figures are swimming. And she does this without painting any water. She both trusts her skill and our imagination to complete the action of the image.

Her color palette is amazing. Smith uses a gradient scale with light muted purple tones that gradually change to dark reddish ones. When you look at these giant, fish figures, the tails are incredibly alive and powerful, as if propelling these crazy creatures forward due to the sheer density of color. Her rendition of fish scales is equally impressive: the front of their bodies, in the foreground of the mural, are precisely rendered. As their bodies retreat into the background she simplifies the scales and breaks them up into different tones of purple. She even adds a dash of line to create the illusion that they are receding into the distance. This is all accomplished by an expert use of line weight.

The real eye catcher of the piece, the image that draws you right to the center of the mural is the face of the fish women. The cool muted white skin tone contrasted against the bright intense red forces you to pay attention. When you look at the mural the subtle details Smith puts around the eyes and face give the woman’s face a sense of age. The yellow of her eyes is calming. The line work around the eyes extenuates that yellow and together they give a sense of wisdom and serenity. Looking at the mural you are immediately drawn to that face and all of its details and then Smith’s explosive use of color takes over and the entire piece comes at you in a rush. I remember watching Smith alternate between stillness and frenzy as she worked and there it is in the mural, a rare case of art mirroring the act of its creation.


Taggers and the hatred of murals

Sadly vandals are attacking murals like Smiths. Like the flu, you can count on this happening. Most people don’t know the difference between a mural (aka graffiti piece) and tagging. They look at murals, although I would say they don’t really look at them, and include them in the morass of visual clutter that they associate with ghettos. Many people see a mural a think of it as a tagging because, for them, anything on the side of a building is a breakdown of law and order. It’s similar to how many white Americans associate people of color: out of control and criminal.

Of course, that’s wrong and a horrible misperception of the daily lives of many people, who are often living under difficult economic and social conditions. Murals unify communities. They’re anti-violent. They add a sense of vibrancy and imagination to a landscape that, at times, is beaten down and neglected. They make people stop, think and reflect, all difficult things to do in the inner city. Most importantly, they are a source of joy and often the catch the eye of the most unlikely people and give them the chance to appreciate a beautiful piece of art, as Smith’s mural did for me.

Children plus murals equals hope
Look at all the beautiful murals that come from the ghetto and you know that there is life there, worthwhile and trying to find a way to make it from day to day. The triumph of murals is that they force other communities to take notice and rethink what it means to be poor and trapped by circumstance. They just aren’t a piece of artwork slapped up on the side of a building, but a message to the world.

They aren’t locked behind doors in a gallery where only the wealthy are welcome. Murals are for the everyday people who go for walks and don’t even know that they need art. We forget how fortunate many of us are to be surrounded and have access to art, but that’s not true when you live in the ghetto. So a mural is more than art, more than a painting on the side of building, but a way of entering new, strange and freer worlds. When a child sees a mural for the first time that mural isn’t just a mural, it’s a key to a better life. Thank God for muralists like Smith and may they forever be free of the vandal’s tag.


©Andrew Manriquez and the CCA Arts Review

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