What One Mural Can Teach Us About Public Art

As the Strong Towns staff was considering a public art week, some challenging questions arose. Is public art a relevant topic for an organization that mainly deals with land use, infrastructure and municipal finance? Does public art contribute financial value to our places and help us build strong towns?

Could a mural matter if the people that live nearby don’t have access to healthy food? Is a tax-draining development less parasitic because they put a nice sculpture out front? Does paint on a wall really make a difference in the grand scheme of things?...

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but I think we can tease out some ideas by, well, looking at some public art. Just one mural, in fact:

I must admit that I don’t know very much about this mural. I don’t know who the artist was, nor their intended meaning. I don’t know if it was commissioned by the city or by the property owner, or if it was a late night guerrilla painting. All I know is that it exists somewhere in or near Albany, New York, and that a friend of mine took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook.  

And so I’m left asking questions and creating my own ideas using only the image in front of me.

It’s a pretty simple mural on its face: We’ve got a hand wielding the Empire State Building as a pencil against a white background, and that’s about it. But what is being drawn? If the white background is blank space, then is the unpainted part the “drawing” being represented? Maybe so.

Maybe the idea is that this wall - and the entire built world that it’s a part of - are being created just as an artist would create a mural: Each new cinder block and fence and door, another layer of paint on the canvas of our towns.

While so many things in our cities and towns tell us “what”, art asks “what if?”

And yet, what has this mighty tower pencil left in its wake? A 'No Parking' sign. Is there any greater antithesis to artistic expression than a rigid, bureaucratic rule handed down from above? While art allows us to create anything - to shape our world as we see fit - our cities are treated like machines with explicit goals in the name of safety, efficiency and economic development. We’ve taken this blank canvas - with the ability to fill it with anything we want - and we painted a rule.

Then there’s the decision to use the Empire State Building. Does it represent prosperity and ingenuity, a symbol of modernism and progress and our collective ability to reach the sky? Or was it chosen because its construction required unprecedented economic and political power in the hands of New York’s mightiest, a monument to the exploitation of the people who labored to build it?

Of course, It could be the case that none of these thoughts entered the artist’s mind. Maybe the Empire State Building was chosen because its rigid angles were easiest to paint. Maybe the no parking sign was put up long after the mural was painted. Maybe the background is white because it’s not yet finished. After all, I’m just taking this mural and imprinting my own ideas, beliefs and biases onto it.

But that’s exactly what makes public art so invaluable: It invites us to ask questions and imagine new possibilities in a way that no road sign, bike lane or business improvement district ever could. It doesn’t have one definite, authoritative rule or mandate; it inevitably holds different meanings for every person that sees it. While so many things in our cities and towns tell us “what”, art asks “what if?”

So as you set out to build strong towns, I encourage you to seek out the public art around you. Use it to challenge and inspire. Let it disrupt conventional wisdom and offer new possibilities. Find a purpose and a story within it. And then grab your brush and help paint this beautiful canvas of ours.

Read more about the origins of this mural here.

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