Murals exist in almost every culture in the world and have a long history of being used by people and communities to communicate with each other. The earliest known example of a mural is in South Africa and was drawn on a rock face 73,000 years ago. Later murals were found in caves and on other structures. While we may not understand exactly what all of these murals meant to their creators, we can see “that the artist was using images purposefully to create a narrative for themselves or others.”
Indigenous people in what is now North America were creating “public” paintings in the American South, well before Europeans arrived and well into the 19th century. Muralism, as we know it today, started in the 15th century with artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Artists were often commissioned to adorn castles, shrines, tombs, exhibitions, libraries, churches, and the homes of wealthy art patrons, while also maintaining their original meaning and purpose: “to depict society through stories, value systems, fantasies, and transformation.”
More recently, murals have become common in cities, where they are extended to the streets and incorporated into architectural features. Whether you are talking about street art-type murals or more mainstream murals, the fascinating thing about murals is their use by people of all cultures, political affiliations, and walks of life to communicate their needs, wants, and desires in a very public way. The locations of murals have always had significance in the depiction of community life and the history of communities. Murals have become a way for communities to document their residents’ shared history and culture.
Cultural geography is the study of the relationship between culture and place. GIS has long been used by geographers to understand and document this relationship and bring together various types of information to help researchers visualize population trends and other patterns that explain the world we live in. Many cities, large and small, in the United States have expanded on a long-standing practice of using GIS to capture information about assets (e.g., roads, fire hydrants, trees, etc.) and have built interactive maps to highlight cultural amenities, including street art and murals.
In Washington, D.C., several organizations and community groups have curated maps to showcase the breadth of culture and community in the area.
MuralsDC was created in 2007 to replace and discourage illegal graffiti by creating murals and, therefore, revitalize sites within communities in the District of Columbia. The project is a partnership between the District’s Department of Public Works and the artist community in D.C. and all across the United States. The project now has over 150 murals installed in all eight wards of the District and serves as an opportunity for young artists to gain experience in the art of aerosol painting. The online gallery and “walking tour” use Google Maps to assist visitors to the site to examine the murals virtually. The site needs to be updated, but still allows visitors to engage with the data and see the variety of murals that exist around the District.
Hola Cultura, an organization dedicated to celebrating the rich history of the Latinx community in D.C., uses multimedia to connect the District’s Latinx and non-Latinx communities. Hola Cultura brought Latinx arts, culture, and humanities together in an online map showing when Latinx murals were painted, and documenting those that were lost to demolition, damage, or are otherwise no longer visible. The site, originally built on Mapstory.org, was moved to Esri’s ArcGIS Online when MapStory.org closed its doors in 2017.
GIS has been used in the District of Columbia and the surrounding areas to document, visualize, and even gamify mural-visiting in the District. A geocacher named Exmachina built a series of geocache locations in D.C., all based on murals. Exmachina’s goal, according to a 2013 article in Greater Greater Washington, was to find murals that “...have some unique history…,” and these murals definitely have interesting and unique stories. Note: The geocache series is now archived, but many of the murals in the series are also listed in the MuralsDC Project.
Why does place matter?
Art and geography have always been connected. Monet loved Giverny and some of his most beloved paintings were painted in and/or represented Giverny. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s music is heavily influenced by his life in Brazil. Similarly, mural artists are often connected to their art by place. “Art and geography have, in other words, together been implicated in transformations in the ways we represent and conceptualize our world. Art is part of the practice of dwelling in and on the earth.”
Geographic information is produced by artistic activity.
Cities that are mapping local murals and other street art are creating data that can be used by the community to encourage tourism or manage public works. Cities and towns can benefit from mapping these cultural resources. Mapping art locations is not, perhaps, a traditional way to think about producing geographic information, but it is geographic information as much as any fire hydrant or post office location.
A community that can identify its strengths and resources by inventorying tangible and intangible cultural assets is a desirable community. The City of Austin, Texas believes that “...culturally vibrant places are desirable, and in turn, valuable places,” and that creating geographic information gives evidence of this value. This hyper-focused approach to cultural and economic development may also be able to help communities survive economic downturn, stave off the gentrification of neighborhoods, and allow residents to control their own development.
Is revitalization or redevelopment the ultimate goal?
“Murals of Tucson: Cultural Legacy Through Contemporary Art,” recognizes Tucson, Arizona’s online mural guide. With 25 entries in the online map, the application is a great resource that allows local residents and visitors alike to view the murals of local artists. The map highlights the local art, which gets people excited about visiting and investing in the community, but some people are concerned that at least some of the art intended to comment on issues related to redevelopment is having unintended consequences and is actually bringing more people to a community that doesn’t want this kind of change.
Gentrification and the potential for undesirable impacts of urban regeneration are valid concerns for communities. Muralism is, however, also about claiming space and helping communities to create spaces that represent both the people in the community and the history and culture of the community. As communities are empowered to take control of their futures and create art that represent themselves, geographers can support and describe community-based art using GIS and other mapping technologies to document the locations of these murals and other cultural features in the landscape. These data can be used to map patterns of regeneration and redevelopment which adds value to conversations about space, place, and community.
Detroit, Mich.: City of Detroit “Blight to Beauty Program
Chicago, Ill.: E(art)h Chicago
Boston, Mass.: Transformative Art Program
Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Mural Program
Philadelphia, Pa.: Mural Arts Philadelphia
Los Angeles, Calif.: City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs