Art for Social Change: Mobilization Through Murals

In the field of art, as in life, the ideological struggle is resolved only by deeds, by works of art and ultimately, by the people — Eva Cockcroft

The contemporary mural movement of today is deeply rooted in the post-revolutionary mural movement of Mexico of the 1920s.  Following the revolution Mexico was in a state of political and social disarray.  Under the Presidency of Alvaro Obregon, the Mexican government initiated a public arts program as a means of realigning the country in the aftermath of such a brutal civil war.  The government enlisted the now famous fathers of the mural movement, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros to cover public buildings with their mural art.  At the same time that these painters began doing their murals, there was a collective social consciousness that was emerging among the Mexican people.  As an expression of this growing awareness and increasing feeling of national identity, the murals painted by Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and others were saturated with political and social commentary and served as a representation of Mexican social, religious, historic, and most importantly nationalistic sentiments.  Not only did the murals of these painters express revolutionary ideas and celebrate Mexican heritage, but they also served another, higher purpose.  By having the murals on the sides of buildings or on public walls, the Mexican mural movement brought art down from the easel, out of the museum, and away from aristocratic society, onto public buildings, into the streets, and back to the masses.

Art is an important vehicle for political action, and its success in this lies in its accessibility to the people (per comm. Heidi Schork).  The use of the arts by painters like Rivera, to empower a disillusioned and disenfranchised people, spread out from Mexico and up through the United States where the arts have played an increasingly vital role in the creation of culture in community development.  With movements that brought the gallery outside of the museums and into the streets, art was reintegrated into the community and utilized to serve the working class struggles (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  Involvement in the arts in any form leads to increased cultural engagement, and this in turn creates a space for the expression and celebration of diversity, which is a basic requirement for the economic success of a community (Borrup, 2004).  The more members of a community participate in the arts, the more social cohesion there is.  “Culture stimulates revitalization not through direct economic impact but by building the social connections between people” (Borrup, 2004).  Community arts programs stimulate broader civic engagement by providing a means through which citizens can feel safe in freely expressing themselves, and by creating a forum for community gathering.  By offering a space for people to work collectively to accomplish a higher goal, these programs expand people’s sense of joint efficacy in all realms of life (Borrup, 2004).    When the cities of the United States were becoming run-down and plagued by corruption and social disintegration, initiatives in the arts were one of the principle means of reuniting communities.

The arts not only a means of solidifying a community, but they are also used to rejuvenate run down areas of cities.  In New York, for example, an increase in public art commissions was a vital part of the city’s movement of revitalization.  Public art is an integral part of the production of meaning, uses, and forms for any city, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and from Boston to Chicago.  Because of the inherent widespread visibility of public art, these works are able to uncover the hidden contradictions of a city and its processes and reveal these inconsistencies to the community at large (Deutsche, 1996).  As opposed to gallery art, created for an elite audience for final sale into a private collection, the new public art movement combines art with function and is focused on creation of art specifically for the benefit of the public.  For example, public art can assist in urban design and economic redevelopment by bringing together a diverse group of people in negotiation and collaboration (Deutsche, 1996).

The use of the arts for such purposes as bringing unity to a community or increasing political activism among disenfranchised members of society is completely disjointed from the priorities of well renowned museums today.  These museums keep the art indoors and create a system that makes the art, in reality, only available to a small portion of the population.  The success of artists in working against the exclusionary practices of museums can be seen in its origins with Rivera in Mexico, and carried into the present with artists such as Dana Chandler of the Boston mural arts movement, and Judy Baca of the Los Angeles mural movement.  Chandler commented once, while painting a militant black power mural in a Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood in 1968, “There is no Black art in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), so we are going to utilize the façade of buildings in our community as our museum” (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  Museums like Boston’s MFA, with their memberships, high class restaurants, admissions charges, expensive gift shops, and sterile viewing environment, create a sort of club for the art world that excludes the society’s working class, like those of Roxbury for whom Chandler was painting her mural.

Murals are among the most accessible of all the public art forums and can so be used for a wide variety of purposes.  Murals can be used for conveying official values of a government or religious body, commemorating an important historical event, aesthetic improvement of an area, and, most importantly, giving voice to the disempowered members of a society (Golden, ?). Murals aim to unite their audience around a certain idea, attitude, or expression (Folgarait, 1991).  The large scale of most murals turns a viewer from a spectator of the arts into an active participant.  In contrast to the viewing of an easel painting, where one needs only stand in front of a work to see it, to view a mural one must move his or her body through space and become a part of the mural in some respect.  Further, the viewing of a mural takes time and effort, requires focusing on small details, large compositions, words, symbols, sequences of events, and on the whole, requires more time and effort to view (Folgarait, 1991).

The way in which murals portray historical events is also an essential property of this art form.  Murals do not portray events in a linear and coherent way, but rather display history disjointedly, therefore forcing the viewer into the role of the narrator.  As the viewer becomes the dictator of the story he or she is furthered empowered to tell the story in the way he or she experiences it (Folgarait, 1991).  A clear example of the viewer becoming the narrator is seen with Rivera’s famous “National Palace Mural,” which illustrates the history of Mexico and its people up through its civil war.

Image: Wall of Diego Rivera’s National Palace Mural

This mural covers three enormous walls, totaling 275 square meters altogether (Folgarait, 1991).  Although events in this mural are arranged in a specific order, the experience of the mural depends on the instantaneous experience of the viewer taking in the whole three panel mural scene all at once.

The space a mural is in creates a sort double use of space, with art on the one hand, and everyday labor on the other.  The construction of the mural is on not only serves to support the art, but it can simultaneously serve as a functional housing for workers, or as a restaurant, or store (Folgarait, 1991).  In this way murals blur the boundaries between art and everyday life, as well as between artists and the people.  Finally, murals serve a very functional purpose, as an advertisement for the ideas of an artist, mural team, or community.  This quality can be use for a variety of purposes, including the spread of political ideas, the creation of a sense of a unified culture, and the raising of social consciousness.

The mural movement took root in the United States with the push for bringing the art of museums outdoors during the late 1960s, known as the “gallery to the streets” movement.  With this movement people found murals as essential tools for the expression of their heritage and experience.  The creation of murals in the U.S. has largely involved the inclusion of alienated, isolated, inner-city youth in a form of personal expression and team-centered creative creation.  The mural movement brings artistically trained professionals together with a working class population and it uses the synergy of this unification to power a completely new form of art: one that comes directly from the people themselves.  Today, murals are a highly developed form of art that is rooted in the expression of the values and visions of the working class (Cockcroft et al., 1998). This essential inclusion of and respect for the needs and visions of the working class may be the most innovative aspect of the movement

An important example of how murals can be used to bring a community together can be seen with the “Wall of Respect” mural, created by William Walker, Eugene Eda, and others, created in Chicago in 1969.  A composition combining words and illustration, this mural incorporated themes of oppression, unity and confrontation.  Above the title panel of this mural Walker inscribed the words “We the People of this community claim this building in order to preserve what is ours” (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  With the expansion of this mural to surrounding walls and buildings over the years, the location became well known throughout the city.  This mural site, specifically, was used as a rallying point for community members against the city government’s attempts to demolish the buildings as part of an “urban renewal” program (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  The wall of respect in Chicago was the catalyst for the creation of numerous similarly-themed murals in cities across the country.  In addition, the result of “The Wall of Respect” was the creation of a new level of the mural arts movement with the inclusion of new basics: using neglected sites as locations, the initiative of artists (rather than the government) to start murals, the leadership of minority artists, community support for and participation in the mural making process, and the group mentality behind mural creation (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  These characteristics of the modern mural movement took root in Chicago and have spread throughout the country.

The success of the mural movement can been seen in a variety of organizations today, including the Philadelphia Museum’s Department of Urban Outreach’s Mural Program, the Chicago Mural Group, and the Boston Mural Crew.  Murals were used in each of these cities to renew the rundown areas and to breathe new life into the people.

I remember when parts of Philadelphia were plagued with graffiti and trash and drug dealers on corners, and some of these pockets have become an oasis in the city,” says Jane Golden, director of the nearly 20-year-old Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia. [A mural] helps raise the consciousness level of what the neighborhood could be. People feel … a deep sense of ownership. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s beautiful … it [gives] people a voice (Connors, 2003).

Another key example of the city being turned into a museum is Boston’s Summerthing Mural Program which began in 1968 with artist Adele Serende.  This program got off the ground with a start-up grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts.  The goal of Summerthing was for artists and community members to paint murals around the city, especially in lower class, minority neighborhoods, as a means of social reform of Boston’s then-deteriorating urban centers.  The themes of these murals reflected the passions and histories of the people living in the communities where they were painted, including murals such as “Africa is the Beginning” mural in Roxbury, and a “Black Awareness” mural in the South End (Cockcroft et al., 1998).  The mural processes not only respects, but it wholly relies on the inspiration of the community for its success.

By definition mural painting operates in the public realm and is closely tied to the working class in its qualities and making (Folgarait, 1998).  Overall, collaborative murals necessitate a very democratic process in their making, requiring compromise and consensus among community members, artists, and mural crew workers.  The creation of murals by a mural team also involves the division of labor and delineation of tasks.  The production of a mural painting has been compared to assembly line industry manufacturing as each person has a job to complete according to his or her specific skills, and together, the completion of each team member’s task results in the final mural product (Folgarait, 1998).  The process respects and depends on the skills of each individual and utilizes these talents in the way that is most appropriate.

Cities in the United States have evolved to rely on the hierarchical differentiation of social groups and territories.  The separation of these social classes paves the way for uneven development of neighborhoods throughout a city and for an unbalanced distribution of wealth among residents (Deutsche, 1996).  This growth pattern, evidenced in cities from New York to Chicago to Boston, has lead to the reinforcement and perpetuation of an economically and racially segregated spatial structure that pushes low-income residents away from the center of the city and into marginalized pockets (Deutsche, 1996).  Development along this path has come about due to the combination of factors, including appropriation of land by private interests, deterritorialization of residents, inequitable distribution of spatial resources, and homogenization of various parts of the city.  The development of space in the late-capitalist era involves uneven distribution of capital and land according to class and race, and redevelopment of urban spaces that leads to gentrification and re-marginalization of the poor and minority population of the cities.   As minorities move into a neighborhood, wealthy residents move out, taking investment, business, banks, and services with them.  Urban centers are left isolated and poor until a few years down the road when developers start looking for land to develop for the upper middle class and rediscover these locations.  Then, residents are, directly or indirectly, forced off their land and forced to a new decaying pocket of the city.

One large-scale change in perception that needs to be made is for people to see the city as a social form rather than as a simply a grouping of homes and establishments.  If this paradigm shift were made, there would be an overall sentiment that previously disempowered groups have a right to access the city, that these groups need to have a voice in the decision making process of how this space is used, and therefore need to be reintegrated into society (Deutsche, 1996).  Public art is an essential part of this re-conceptualization for urban planning and design because it creates coherence, order, and rationality on public spaces that may be in various states of disrepair (Deutsche, 1996).

The history the Roxbury Dorchester area, where the Dudley Neighborhood lies (right outside of the city of Boston), makes it a unique location for an urban revitalization movement that is founded on the importance of public art, specifically, community murals.

Image: Map of the Dudley Neighborhood

The area started off as a thriving urban center in the early 1870s, composed of immigrant settlers and residential developments, and it stayed this way until 1900 when it hit its peak.  Around this time business began to move out into the heart of the city, and the population became predominantly minority.  From 1900 on the Dudley neighborhood went into steady decline, until the more recent revitalization movements of the late ‘90s.  As this area was growing with poor immigrants from all over the world, Boston, in 1850 was becoming the most segregated city in the north.  The Dudley Neighborhood became increasingly ethnically diverse as Boston proper grew with white, Irish Catholic immigrants.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when mechanization came to the South, there was an abrupt increase in African American migration to Boston, causing a 30% increase in the black population of the city in 30 years.  This surge in population change was followed by a 30% increase in the Latino and Cape Verdean population in twenty years, between 1970 and 1990 (Medoff and Sklar, 1996).   The rise in the non-white population of Dudley, along with Boston government’s encouragement of suburban segregation, led to white flight on an enormous scale.  Not only did the government provide subsidies for segregated suburbanization of the Boston area, but it decreased the amount of funding it provided for areas like Roxbury and Dorchester.  In addition, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 began providing mortgage guarantees for new construction of racially segregated suburbs, asserting that this segregation was the key to stability in housing values (Medoff and Sklar, 1996).  The combination of these events led to a large decrease in public investment, new construction and to a state of urban decay.

To further compound the deterioration of this neighborhood, the government took its money out of the urban mass transit system, the main means of transportation for Dudley residents to their work in the city, and focused its funds instead on highway construction to accommodate the cars of the quickly growing upper-middle class suburbs of the Boston.  By 1984, 40% of Asians, 50% of Latinos, and 29% of African Americans living in the Boston metropolitan area were at or below the poverty line.  Overall, 1 in every 3 children lived in a state of poverty as well.  The more affluent white people moved into Boston and areas like Dudley and Roxbury increased in their poor and minority population.  In 1989 African Americans made up less than 7% of the population of the suburbs, while suburban per capita income remained, on average, 59% higher than that of the cities.  In Dudley specifically, the unemployment rate in 1990 was over 16%, this was over twice as high as Boston’s overall rate (Medoff and Sklar, 1996).  There were few opportunities for work in the Dudley area, as well as poor options for transportation to jobs in the city, and an inadequate education system.

To combat the declining state of neighborhoods like Dudley, urban renewal programs were started by various organizations, however they were nothing like the revitalization programs in existence today.  In an attempt to “clean up” the Dudley area, in 1957 the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) started a renewal initiative that included, among other unjust policies, the displacement of over 2000 people in the Roxbury/Dorchester area to try and clear up the slums and ghettos that had been forming.  This step by the BRA was followed up by the organization providing no housing alternatives for any of the families whose land had just been taken from them (Medoff and Sklar, 1996).  At this time, “urban renewal” was synonymous with “slum clearance.”

By the1980s, the Dudley area community had had enough of bank closures, unavailable jobs, unaffordable housing, and lack of suitable transportation.  Out of these concerns and inequalities the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) was born in 1984 (Sklar, 2002).  This group focused on environmental justice issues, and worked to combat the increasing polarization between the well-off professionals and the poor under/unemployed lower class.  Specifically, they organized to fight against the discrimination, public and private disinvestment, arson for profit, and illegal dumping on vacant lots of land that had been occurring throughout the neighborhood for the past number of years (Sklar, 2002).  DSNI was a movement started by Dudley residents, and was made to keep the power and decision making for the area among the people who lived there.

One of the central components of DSNI’s plan for the re-emergence of the Dudley neighborhood as a viable, functional community has been their sponsorship of community murals.  Numerous of these murals have been painted in a collaborative effort between professional artists and community members, most famously, through muralist Heidi Schork’s organization, the Boston Mural Crew (BMC).  Funded through the Boston city government, the BMC uses murals as a means of urban renewal and community empowerment. By painting murals on sides of buildings, storefronts, and on property in abandoned lots, the BMC helps to bring attention to places that may have been overlooked.  The presence of a mural on a building calls people’s attention to that spot, and this attention leads to the opportunity for new possibilities to arise.  Murals in this area cause people to feel more connected to a certain location, be it a store, a restaurant, or simply a certain intersection in town.  For example the “The Tribute to the Blues” mural done by BMC under Schork’s artistic leadership brings attention to Ferdinand’s Furniture store and draws in customers for this business (per comm. Heidi Schork).

Murals are also used in Dudley as a means of advertisement.  BMC has used murals in the Dudley Neighborhood to help the community show, to both itself and to the greater Boston area, what it’s all about.  This has helped Dudley residents to reaffirm their collective goals for themselves and to show the city of Boston what they stand for.

Because the mural process happens on the streets and the people who interact with the mural process as it is occurring are what give the final product its soul and meaning.  The public nature of mural making causes everyone in the neighborhood to come around while it is being made.  The creation of a mural is a sort of performance piece, a collaboration done in public; it engages the community in dialogue, this alone is revolutionary (per comm. Heidi Schork).  As people start to come around and talk to the artists and to interact with the space, community members start to get to know one another better, as well as to get to know the youth on the mural crew better (per comm. Heidi Schork).  The creation of murals in this area leads to dialogue, community involvement, and forms a productive activity that the whole neighborhood can be involved with in some way.

Finally, the Mural Crew’s choice of location says a great deal to people in the neighborhood in which they are working.  “The BMC does most of its murals in places like Dudley, in communities that are thought of by many as some of the most dangerous places in Boston.  That alone is a statement.  We are saying it is okay for us to be here” (per comm. Heidi Schork).  By bringing youth, paint, music, and energy into an area, the Crew turns places that are usually scary and unsafe into acceptable spots to spend time at.  By doing murals on street corners know for prostitution or parks famous for drug trafficking, the presence of the BMC helps to keep gangs away and the crime down.  “You can’t sell drugs on a corner where kids are painting a mural, we just bring too much attention to that spot” (per comm. Heidi Schork).

Art is a vehicle for political action and community mobilization because art is accessible.  This is one of the main reasons why DSNI has worked so closely with the BMC in their efforts to change the Dudley Street neighborhood.  DSNI today is a multicultural, intergenerational grass roots organization with nearly 4,000 members working towards the common goal of revitalizing the Dudley area (Sklar, 2002).  This area now has over 10 large-scale murals, many of which are the product of the artists and youth of the BMC.  Dudley has come a long way from the origin of DSNI and has accomplished a great deal in the past 20 years.  The area has community garden projects, an abundance of youth-centered programming, and a bourgeoning population of socially conscious citizens.

Looking to the future, it is difficult to see in what direction Dudley will go.  DSNI is still working for reinvestment in the area; however, reinvestment almost always entails the taking over of an area by outsiders, white, rich developers.  Gentrification will happen to the Dudley neighborhood unless the African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Latinos, and other minority members of the community are involved in the urban renewal process every step of the way.  This is why the BMC works with kids in these areas, to start from the ground and work up to change the neighborhoods.

Without organizations like the BMC, these kids grow up to be the busboys at the expensive restaurants and the nannies for the upper-class families that move into the neighborhood as it begins to improve.  Commenting on how she uses the BMC to bring the inner-city kids of Boston through the mural movement Schork said, “You have to start when they are children by showing them that art is a part of their lives and that they are not excluded from that world” (per comm. Heidi Schork).  Through the mural process, people in neighborhoods like Dudley are brought closer to their land, and everyone from the youth to the adults in the area is empowered to become active citizens who make the changes they wish to see in their community, creating a better neighborhood for themselves and for each other.




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Folgarait, Leonard (1998). Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940. Cambridge.

Folgarait, Leonard (1991). “Revolution as Ritual: Diego Rivera’s National Palace Mural.” The Oxford Art Journal.

Golden, Jane. Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell (Temple University Press).

Medoff, Peter and Holly Sklar (1996). “Remembering” Streets of Hope, Boston: South End Press.

Schork, Heidi. Director of Massachusetts government sponsored Boston Mural Crew. Personal interview. Saturday April 24, 2004, 9:00am.

Sklar, Holly (2002). Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative: Building on Success, 1984-2002. The Waitt Family Foundation.