Murals: The City’s clothing in contemporary society

Murals: The City’s clothing in contemporary society

All around the world, no matter what city you find yourself in, murals predominate as the primary art form in public spaces. Whether it’s graffiti artists tagging street corners and dilapidated buildings or a more traditional piece taking up an entire side of a skyscraper, it’s hard to be in any major city and not see a giant mural of some kind. A truly unique and unifying form of self-expression, the mural has been around humankind since its dawning and will most likely be used as a form of social expression for ages to come.

History of Murals

Ever since the Paleolithic times, human beings have been creating murals. Cave paintings have been a very important and interesting look into the age of pre-civilization human beings, and have been a significant fixture all throughout our developmental process. In the middle ages, murals were created on dry plaster and were then quickly adapted onto wet plaster, giving it a significant increase in quality.

Lascaux Cave - Paleolithic Murals
“The Great Hall of the Bulls,”: The most famous murals of the cave in Lascaux, France.

In more recent years, championed by the Mexican Muralism art movement, the form grew into a many-headed beast of an art form: fresco artwork for example, which utilizes lime washes and water-soluble paints, was a primary source of expression for the Mexican consciousness, allowing the entire nation to restructure itself after the revolution.

Part of Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico”
Part of Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico” at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Today, the varieties of mural work are varied in content, style, and creation. Gone are the days of rigorous concepts in favor of the ability to do anything one desires. Wall murals have become much more widely available due to technology and are therefore found everywhere in the world.

Murals in Berlin, Germany
Murals in Berlin, Germany

The Mexican Mural Movement

In the 1930s, the Mural gained a particular relevance to Mexican culture and worldwide culture by extension. Championed by famous artists like Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros, murals became more than just a beautiful way to express oneself to an entire city, they became expressly political. The mural of Mexico’s history at the National Palace in Mexico City is a brilliant reminder of the strength of the form and the vision of Diego Rivera himself.


Diego Rivera - Mural at Palacio Nacional, Mexico DF
Diego Rivera – Huge mural at the National Palace, Mexico D.F. (1929-1935). The mural tells the history of Mexico.

Expression of Nationalism and idealism

Having started in the early 20th century, Mexican Muralism was an expressly political form that served as a method to reunify the country after the revolutionary government stepped in. Since most of the country was still illiterate, the new government needed a way to express ideas and principles and murals created by the country’s top artists were just the way to express nationalism and idealism to a populace who would be unable to read about it.

Orozco - murals
José Clemente Orozco – Prometheus Fresco (1930) – Pomona College, CA, United States.

For around fifty years, until 1970, Mexico was covered with numerous murals with content ranging from nationalistic to sociopolitical. The trend continues to this day and has inspired countless artists outwards to the neighboring countries, like the United States.

Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros

“The three great ones” (Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros) all believed that art was the pinnacle of human expression and that it was an integral component in social revolution which is why the mural form worked so well for them specifically – being able to express themselves, their love for their country, and for the ideals that they wished to cultivate all at once, in public, was an opportunity too great to pass up.

Siqueiros Chapultepec mural
David Alfaro Siqueiros – From the Dictatorship of the Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution the People in Arms (1957) – National History Museum, Chapultepec Castle, in Mexico City.

To this day, Mexican artists still create murals and nationalistic art that represent their passion for their country. Buildings from government offices to churches and schools alike are all candidates for mural work and have been extensively used in the progress of the art form. The Mexican mural work was also a significant counterbalancing artistic force to the predominantly non-representational artwork of the abstract movement after World War I. This allowed the artists to speak directly about contemporaneous and immediate concerns affecting them.

The U.S. Mural Movement

In the United States, Murals have again been a significant source of a city’s visible, public art culture. The mural utilized as a political vehicle was borrowed by the United States unequivocally and served as a large inspiring force for the Southwest of the country. To this day, murals are a prime mode of expression for cities all over the world and will remain a significant force in a city’s local culture.

Keith Haring- Mural in Philadelphia
Keith Haring – We The Youth (1987) – Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia, United States.

Important Murals and Muralists

In order to understand the impact of the medium, it’s important to regard the variety of styles and content, almost entirely dependant on region and city. Truly, the murals of the city identify and differentiate it as much as any specific architecture or landscape feature do and allow an entire city to have a collective voice. By utilizing murals, cities everywhere are never without their own stories and experiences.

Nelson Mandela mural in Cape Town
Nelson Mandela’s graffiti in Woodstock, a neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa.

A prime mover in the Mexican Mural movement, Rivera created numerous murals all over Mexico City between 1922 and 1953. Rivera’s most famous artworks represent heavy nationalistic and patriotic themes. He joined the Mexican Communist party and became a figurehead for the movement, using his art to further the goals of Mexico itself.

In one of his most famous pieces, Man at the Crossroads, Rivera would insert an image of Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade into a brilliant mural he did for New York City’s Rockefeller Center. This obviously led to quick controversy. As a consequence, and despite protests from various artists, Nelson Rockefeller ordered its destruction before it was even completed.

Using photography taken of the unfinished mural, Rivera would go back to Mexico and repaint the mural under the title “Man, Controller of the Universe.”

Diego Rivera - Man at Crossroads
Diego Rivera – Man, Controller of the Universe (1934) – Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.

The mural itself is a brilliant juxtaposition of, essentially, Capitalism vs. Communism, and Rivera’s politics shine clear through. A worker in the center, flanked by Lenin on the right and a group of wealthy socialites on the left, gives us enough context for us to glean Rivera’s representations of class struggle. For Rockefeller, who commissioned the work and paid Rivera $21000, this was simply not appropriate.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel

An astounding work of public art, the Sistine Chapel is extremely well-known and for good reason. Created from 1508 to 1512, the ceiling of the Chapel is immortally famous. By painting all the biblical stories inside of a beautiful chapel, Michelangelo was able to teach many illiterate Italians the story of the Christian faith. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the chapel consists primarily of nine scenes from the Book of Genesis (most notably and famously being “The Creation of Adam” and served as the crowning achievement of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo – The Nine Scenes from the Book of Genesis (1508-1512) – Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

While not traditionally associated with murals, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a perfect example of public, large-scale art. It is intended to be shared with a population of people rather than simply remain locked inside a collector’s storeroom. The Chapel, to this day, has the awe-inspiring power to bring people from all over the world to come revel in its magnificence.

The Great Wall of L.A.

As an example of a mural that perfectly depicts its city and culture, the Great Wall of LA is one of the longest murals in the world, running a great distance in Valley Glen. Painted entirely inside a drainage channel, it was the first public art project by the Social and Public Art Resource Center. It was taken on to brighten up a long and barren stretch of wall in the city. It tells numerous stories “as seen through the eyes of women and minorities” and it took 35 artists and 400 underprivileged youths in the area five summers to fully finish. The mural encompasses the entire history of California up until the 1950s. SPARC mural is considered one of the grandest public art projects in Californian history.

The Great Wall of Los Angeles
Part of The Great Wall of Los Angeles – one of the country’s most respected and largest monuments to inter-racial harmony.

Judith Baca, the lead artist and designer of the project, noticed the trend of the Public art world turning away from the Mural form. “Public art in America has taken a shift; it’s basically becoming decorative. They’ve reduced the community process to censorship. The Great Wall, for example, could not be done today.”

This sobering thought is important to remember, because, in Baca’s words, “It’s not just history, it’s really about relationships—about connecting.”

The story and voice of a people

Murals work because they not only express the cultural values of the city, but they also work in reverse. By having more pieces of public art, the populace surrounding it becomes more connected and invested in their city as a whole. According to this statement, inhabitants are more likely to grow attached to their home. It’s a continuous process of falling in love with your home city, over and over again. It’s like having your home city reflect that love back to the world in its individual expression. Murals are important artifacts not only because of their artistic value but also the value they lend to the society that produces them. A city without public art is a city without a voice. By lending talented minds to the mural process, it allows any city to have an individuated and nuanced personality.

Basquiat and Warhol Graffiti by Kobra. Brooklyn, NY
Eduardo Kobra – Andy Warhol and Jena-Michel Basquiat (2014) – Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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