LA City

LA’s Ban On Murals

Once deemed the Mural Capital of the World, LA became a ghost town for muralists. Started in 2003, the ban was directed at advertisers and simply took many artists with it. At the time, LA was concerned about corporate messages being hidden in the many public art displays around town, a guerrilla marketing tactic that made it hard to differentiate someone pushing a product and someone trying to create art. A blanket ban on murals ended the all public art displays, corporate and otherwise, but the city has been persuaded after a long decade that public art can be allowed back. LA’s own Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and documenting murals, drafted the legislation as a combined effort between the city and hundreds of local muralists and artists. Even though the ban has been repealed, it hasn’t come without restrictions.

Murals are still banned from public buildings, being restricted to privately owned buildings exclusively, and those murals can happen only after the artist pays $60 and fills out the appropriate application form. To prevent advertisers taking advantage of the changes, murals must stay up for 2 years. Unless, of course, the city itself decides otherwise. Artists are still being met with restrictions and red tape at every turn and even if they do manage to get everything in order, there is still a strong chance the city will paint over the mural if certain protocols aren’t met. The city, despite lifting the ban, doesn’t seem to eager to let local artists do good work on private property.

Even the public is on the fence about whether the ban is a good thing or not. A large mural downtown, for example, only barely managed to get made and had to justify itself against a petition with 12,000 signatures and an intervention by the Mayor’s office. Neighbourhoods have to also “opt-in” to the repeal, limiting the space where artists can work even further. Just where, what, and exactly how these murals are being made seems to be at the forefront of many people’s minds.

Of course, the ban was unevenly enforced during its 11-year reign. Celebrities like James Franco managed to get murals up when they wanted, while others were forced to take them down. Now, artists have a bit more freedom and are less likely to face any legal ramifications for their art, but the regulation still makes public art a public concern.

LA’s ban and subsequent repeal brings along a large number of questions about public art, corporate advertising, and how a city and its citizens regard murals and the people who make them. Many citizens worry about graffiti and vandalism, or murals they think are inappropriate or being made in their neighbourhood in a city where shock still seems to reign supreme. The efforts by the city are an example of listening to artists and concerned citizens, even if the result is difficult and cumbersome. Muralists still seem to be the villain, or at least a barely tolerated presence in the city that once claimed to be the Mural Capital.

chemainus world famous murals logo

Chemainus, World Famous Murals

In 1981, Chemainus was a town on the brink not unlike many towns in British Columbia. The recession hit the town particularly hard and the town’s major employer, a single logging company, couldn’t sustain its work like it had for decades. If you have ever driven through B.C. before, off the beaten tracks of the Okanogan and Vancouver areas, you have most certainly past the ghost towns throughout the province. Places of former prosperity now entirely abandoned save for a small tour company. Chemainus was set to join these ranks.

8.1M X 3M (27’ X 10’), WILLOW STREET - Painted in 1982 by Frank Lewis and Nancy Lagana, Victoria, B.C.

WILLOW STREET (1982) by Frank Lewis & Nancy Lagana

But rather than pick up and seek work elsewhere, the small town looked inwards and wondered how to diversify their community’s industries, to join the new post-Ford economy and not only survive, but thrive.

The answer came with murals, a way for locals to join the growing arts scene on Vancouver Island while bringing in tourists that come from around the world. The murals, like other similar projects, depict the history of the town along with the town’s identity. Local Indigenous tribes are found, along with the history of European settlement and development. The murals incorporate many distinctive styles rather than attempting a consistent look, proving the project relies on artistic vision just as much as community involvement. The town’s website discusses the increased artistic freedom they allow their muralists, which have created some unique pieces that even businesses like Subway are keen to encourage.

TEMPORARY HOMES (1983) by David White

TEMPORARY HOMES (1983) by David White

The town also emphasizes a unique aspect of street art different from art hanging in galleries: the openness of the process. Street art frequently requires artists to work out in the open and the piece itself can be seen in various stages from inception to completion. Chemainus encourages locals and tourists to interact and talk with the artists as the work happens. Such openness encourages interaction and, hopefully, can inspire others to learn more about street art and Chemainus.

The project originated with a series of grants from the Canadian government which helped Chemainus redevelop their image and attract tourism to the town. These grants have now since been used and Chemainus relies on its own economy to continue their murals and other tourism strategies. They continue to diversify, taking advantage of their location between Victoria and Nanaimo, and local prjects include sinking Boeing 737 to create an artificial reef.

Chemainus’ economic redevelopment has put them in a small collection of even smaller communities able to diversify successfully and their success has created a number of spin-off projects not only throughout Canada, but around the world. Stony Plain, Alberta; Moosejaw, Saskatchewan; Oshawa, Ontario, along with cities in Illinois, California, and Tasmania have all used Chemainus’ strategies to inject art and money into their struggling local economies.

It should be noted that Chemainus’ economic development has not entirely eliminated its dependence on logging, which still remains the cities biggest employer and sector. The murals, however, represent a successful intersection of art and economic revitalization, proving the power street art has to help a community both aesthetically and economically.

For more information be sure to check out their mural website, muraltown.com.

2014 world cup mural being painted

Brazil World Cup Mural

From the first kick-off of Brazil vs. Croatia to Mario Götze’s extra time goal for Germany, this year’s FIFA World Cup was a whirlwind of emotion. Disappointment for Argentina, who made it further than anyone expected, anger for Brazil’s devastating 7-1 loss to Germany, and joy for many other nations. Names were made, legends finished their careers, and nations stood captivated. If the FIFA World Cup proves one thing, it’s that soccer (or football) is truly the world’s game, and one painter decided to put all that emotion into one amazing piece of street art.

Marcos Jambeiro began his mural of the World Cup just days into the tournament, capturing the intensity and emotion as it was happening. The piece was commissioned by ESPN as a testament to what Brazil and the world felt for a month this summer. For the country of Brazil, this mural seems the perfect way to convey this. As Jambeiro said in a recent interview, “When we do a work on the street, it’s a museum that’s open to everyone,” Jambeiro said. “It’s an open cultural center for everyone to come to.”

In fact, major metropolitan sectors have passed laws that only encourage street art. Sao Paulo, for example, has a ban on public advertising like billboards, so there is ample more space for artists to take over and add their own flavour to their cities. In Brazil, street art is exactly like New York in the 70s, except for the complete opposite. Both are covered from street to building tops with graffiti, but in Brazil, it’s part of the culture and entirely encouraged.

So when the muralist Marcos Jambeiro told The Washington Post that street art and soccer are essential components of a nation’s identity, he has tapped into something that Brazil is famous for, both in talent and pervasiveness. he connects the two further in his interview: “This is something specific to Brazilians: the spontaneity of playing football, joy,” he said. “Art is in all of this, not just in the painting, but in the song, the joy of playing football.”

The mural combines World Cup highlights, world flags, and Brazilian points of interest.

Jambeiro combined World Cup highlights, world flags, and the most famous places in Brazil, fully encapsulating what makes these types of sports tournaments so wonderful. Jambeiro also made full use of technology, his smartphone always at the ready to capture famous photos of particularly incredible moments: Neymar’s tragic injury, Guillermo Ochoa’s incredible save in Mexico vs. Croatia, the list goes on. Coupled with the flags weaving in and out of the images, the fans holding their signs and their breaths, Jambeiro’s mural is a testament to all that made the World Cup particularly memorable.

wrigley field mural with mistake

Wrigley Field Mural Mistakes

One of the worst things a muralist can do is not consider where they are painting, doing the right research for what they want to paint in a particular place. Every city, every town has a different energy, different sets of prioritues, and different values. For the muralists who painted the Wrigley Stadium, these mistakes were made. Of course, for people who don’t live in Chicago, the new Wrigley mural was a set of funny circumstances, it was a bit of an insult. Street art celebrates, it discusses, it even mocks, but it should never be wrong from a lack of research.

The Wrigley Stadium mural went up earlier this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs for 98 of those years. It is a large mural, depicting many historical moments that took place in and around that stadium. For Chicago, a town with a rich history that many of its citizens take very seriously, the mural was a testament to the town’s pride and resolve.

The main mistake came from what Cubs spokesman Julian Green described as (and I paraphrase) “incorrect labelling.” Green said in a statement that “[We] worked to source a significant number of photos from outside archives to highlight this wonderful milestone all season long. Unfortunately, the photo featuring Charles Lindbergh was incorrectly labeled in a collection of historical photos we recently acquired for our Cubs archives.” The result was a picture of Charles Lindbergh visiting Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, not the Cubs.

The error was originally pointed out by Cubs historian Floyd Sullivan, who discovered the mistake and notified the Cubs before mentioning it in his blog. He wasn’t exactly direct, turning the mistake into a game for his readers. Posting some pictures of the mural, Sullivan promised a copy of his upcoming book to the first 5 people who correctly identified the mistake.

The result only made matters worse.

another mural from wrigley field with a mistake

More mistakes were discovered, from misspelt names to incorrect labels. One was discovered initially because the official posted picture actually contained the mistake in the photo’s URL, triggering some people to cross-reference the image to discover the year was wrong. Gabby Hartnett’s name was missing the last ’t’ too, a simple but glaring error after fans started combing over the mural with a fine tooth comb. Other errors included calling Franlkin Roosevelt “President” despite the photo referenced being from before he was elected and a mitt depicting a patch that couldn’t have existed when and where they claimed the image was from.

Thankfully, officials have recognized these mistakes and fixed them, much to the relief of Cubs fans and baseball history fans across the globe. Repairs were made within just a few weeks of Sullivan’s article.

There are a couple of lessons we can learn from the “Wrigley Field gaffes,” as the local media called them. Mostly, research is a street artist’s best friend. Many murals are commemorative, and that requires a certain amount of real dedication and respect for the people who would want the commemoration. The classic “know your audience.” The murals themselves are brilliant and skillfully made, hopefully the quick fixes will help fans enjoy Wrigley Stadium’s newest additions for a long time.

mural in pembroke ontario

Pembroke Heritage Murals

Nestled in the Ottawa Valley, Pembroke has plenty of reasons to be famous. It’s the first Canadian city to have electric streetlights, first turned on in 1884, and home to plenty of historical site, so many that the town offers different walking tours for different parts of history. But what Pembroke is most famous for in the art community is being Canada’s largest outdoor art gallery, collectively called The Pembroke Heritage Murals. They are a collection of over 30 large scale murals that explore this community’s rich history, a project that fosters a community and brings tourism to the small community.

Pembroke is a quiet community nestled in the Ottawa Valley. Home to just over 16,000 people, the small town is actually a historical gem for Ontario and Canada as a whole. It’s the first town to get electric streetlights, switched on in 1884, and has a rich history dating back to the early 1800s. But for art enthusiasts, especially lovers of outdoor and street art, Pembroke is particularly famous.

Pembroke has a long history of keeping its history in tact, restoring old buildings and centres for tourists and future generations and wearing its proud history on its sleeve. Tourists and locals can take walking tours, walk around to take in the art scene and festivals, and visit the city’s museums and restored buildings.

And among these museums are some of Canada’s oldest murals, some dating back over 20 years and given the attention they deserve to last as long as Pembroke’s other historical sites. Older murals are constantly touched up and restored by people involved in the ongoing project while more murals are added every year. “We are very proud to keep Pembroke’s outdoor art gallery in good repair,” Heritage Mural chairperson Pamela Dempsey told The Daily Observer, “Thirty-three murals is an exceptional gallery of our illustrated history.”

The murals are professionally curated, with artists like Stephan Bell, Neil Blackwell, Marillyn Saffery, and Pierre Hardy all contributing murals over the years. Subjects range within Pembroke’s history, from its discovery in the early 1800s, through the First World War, and even a Grease-inspired homage to the 50s.

What the Pembroke Heritage Murals project demonstrates is the role that outdoor art can have in defining a city’s identity, attracting tourists, and contributing to a larger dedication to a particular subject. For Pembroke, their history is not only a point of pride, but a viable and growing source of income for the city. With such a rich history and an ongoing dedication to keeping the city’s history alive and restored, Pembroke stands as an example of the power of street art.

peeta infront of mural

3D Street Art

3D graffiti has existed all over the world for at least 20 years and, like much of street art, concrete history is often difficult to ascertain. By the early 90s, 3D art was becoming more common as graffiti itself started to expand and take in varying influences. Being grounded in something inherently illegal, graffiti often takes in and incorporates existing art, sometimes to the point of plagiarism, so 3D artists draw on any number of influences, from Neoclassicism to the Renaissance, either turning well-known paintings into 3D experiences or lifting the classic and familiar art styles for their own original pieces.

The major style they took, however, is “Trompe-l’œil,” meaning ‘to deceive the eye.’ The style focused on making paintings appear to violate their 2D construction. One notable piece, “Escaping Criticism” by Pere Borrell del Caso from 1874, features a child stepping out of the frame.

At its heart, 3D street art takes Trompe-l’œil’s major themes to heart, the making of the unreal, the falsifying of “real world” experience, whether it be the sudden awareness that one may fall into a bottomless pit or seeing something familiar in a different medium and mode. As with other styles of graffiti, each artist has their own particular approach, but a combination of paint and chalk are usually used for the pieces. Standing at the perfect angle is also necessary to get the full illusion.

And while tons of people are doing 3D street art around the world everyday, here are some of the best and most well-known:

Peeta

peeta infront of mural
Peeta’s artwork has an amazing write-up in The Atlantic that compares his striking and angular lettering to the New Aesthetic art movement, an art style that takes the digital familiar into the real world, like pixelated sculptures. Peeta has been working as a street artist since the 1993 and mostly focuses on lettering and typography. “I endeavour to realize the sculptural quality of individual letters,” Peeta says of his work in his bio, “I break them from their generic typographical form, stylizing them with shape and volume beyond its mere semantic function. Thus my own lettering is brought into the fluidity of the urban, where words are continuously ruptured from their own histories, readapted into idiom and gestures learned off the street.” In short, he makes letters, an everyday necessity, something unfamiliar.

Kurt Wenner

kurt wenners art

Wenner’s art most obviously takes from the Renaissance, taking familiar tropes and embedding them in the ground for people to look down into. Wenner’s placement itself is interesting. Whereas these classics are often larger than life, or placed so people can look at them head-on or or tilt their heads upwards, putting this style below our usual sight lines is a commentary in itself. Some of Wenner’s most striking pieces use the classicstyle with modern subject matter, juxtaposing a recognized era of “artistic genius” with contemporary world issues. As a former NASA artist, Wenner attempts to bring his hyperrealism to the streets, quite literally.

Greg Brown

greg-brown-art

Greg Brown, unlike many other 3D artists, is less concerned with accessibility and more with being open to interpretation. Some of his work uses common pieces, like painting an accent table onto a wall, to mess with the “real.” Others, like “Generosity,” appear as characters openly questioning the viewer. Brown frequently replaces actual in-house decor with 3D painting, making his art at once domestic and unnerving.

cave paintings ancient murals

Sign Painting, Truly A Dying Art Form?

The relationship between the painting of murals and signage is very close. It’s possible to trace murals back to the dawning of mankind, to a time when cave dwellers used pigment from berries and crushed beetles to portray relevant and historical events on the otherwise barren rock walls of their homes. The art of sign painting for advertising purposes is almost as ancient as these events. While the Chinese and Japenese used complex logographic characters and Egyptians had used hieroglyphics as far back as 4,000 years ago, hand lettering only had it’s origins near the time that the Roman alphabet was first created.

The Long History of Sign Painting

Much like in previous times, the art form known as sign painting is still a learned craft. In previous years, painters with natural talents were often self-taught, and others were set to complete apprenticeships working under highly skilled masters of the craft. In our modern times, those who have the heart to pursue sign painting professionally generally attend art college of some form and may luck out finding work while completing their study. There is some fairly heated debate amongst artistic circles as to whether the standard of sign painting, in our modern days, is as high-quality as it may have been in earlier years. While this is the case, there is still a fairly broad acceptance that overall the majority of sign painters simply don’t possess the same skills and talents that were common-place in yester years.

Signs of Paleolithic Times

In paleolithic periods, signage was used to advertise good resting spots for nomadic people, dangers of rival tribes, and the presence of good hunting. During this period, life in North America largely depended upon finding shelter and food. In an effort to aid each other, people would paint signs providing aid to those who might find these signs and be in need. Generally, these signs were pictorial showcasing scenes the painters had witnessed.

Hand Lettering

In July of 2001, the Hanover, New Hampshire Hood Museum of Art hosted an exhibition detailing a collection of early American inn and tavern signs. During this event, the museum showcased 24 of the most eye-catching 18th and 19th century signage, primarily these signs were colourful wooden signboards featuring patriotic eagles and proud lions to show travelers designed to show travelers where to go and provide them with pertinent information.

The Technological Age

In our modern day world, with the advent of computers and powerful graphics software, both hand lettering and sign painting have become a dying artform. Computer software programs can generate pixel perfect signage in the tiniest fraction of time that was required of even the most skilled artists. This has significantly reduced the cost of signage and thus pushed out a large portion of the need for sign painters. It is paradoxical that this might be a good thing for sign painting, marking a rebirth of sign painting and hand lettering as forms of art rather than put to use for commercial purposes. When artists are free to produce signage that does not conform to strict advertising requirements, perhaps they will be able to go back to producing information creative works of art, allowing our cities to be filled with colourful, eye-catching paintings.

sign painters movie sign

With Sign Painters, The Weird And Wonderful Comes Out

At the beginning of Sign Painters, just as a nondescript keyboard plays over disjointed interviews, we see a man on a scaffold. It’s morning, he’s happy in his paint-covered clothes, “This is my favourite part,” he says, “this is my city.”

In a lot of ways, this sign painter is completely true. Signs are a large part of any city’s aesthetic, they are an instant way to separate yourself from others, and a art with a long, strong, and obvious history. It’s around all of us everyday. Sign Painters is a documentary about the craft itself, but more about the people who passionately dedicate their lives to putting letters to the canvas.

That man on the scaffold who owns his city is exactly the type of painter Sign Painters wants you to know. He’s quirky, messy, visibly unwilling to fit into the suits and ties of the people on the sidewalks below. He works where others can’t, an artist whose work and labour are both obvious and ignored. Many people will see his sign, certainly more than any of the art galleries around, but little to none will think of him, the thought that went into it. As another painer says later, “Signs are everywhere, but [no one] thinks about who made them.”

But Sign Painters’ directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon want to show the people behind the signs, hoping beautiful shots of the creators and their work will speak to the craft. For the most part, the strategy works. A younger sign painter says early in the film that older painters say “You will spend your life impersonating the older painters.” In a way, the film does exactly this, the rich colours and distanced narrative relies on the painters themselves, the film just replicates what good sign painters are trying to do. Perhaps it’s fitting that the most visible of invisible art now has a documentary that actively tries to be invisible for the sake of their subject.

Levine and Macon are interested in exposing these painters as artists, as professionals in a fringe science, as it were. They are like chefs, their work is out of public view but whose products are enjoyed by everyone, and sign painters they are equally technical in their trade. A small section of the film’s natural progression is the under appreciated technicalities about the trade, the difference between typography and lettering, hand-painted signs and the vinyl that threatens to replace them.

It is after this discussion, between shots of smaller signs we take for granted like “Please keep your dog on a leash,” that Levine and Macon switch to how sign painting has gone from a necessity to a commodity. The classic “computers have changed everything” observation, which has impacted sign painters as much as anyone else.

And perhaps most significantly, it is also at this point that their cross-America tour takes them from San Francisco, the home of Google, to a small town in Minnesota. In San Fran, we meet two painters, a graphic designer that enjoys the work as an extension of his graphic design degree, the use of old techniques with new technologies, the other is from New Bohemia Designs, a classic sign painter. He utters a critical phrase, one that sums up Sign Painters entire purpose and theme: “There does seem to be some section of the population who want it hand painted and are excited someone is still doing this.”

“Still.”

And then we move to Minnesota to a man that has fully embraced this idea of still. He drives an old-timey truck, has a classic moustache, and describes his town as “old-fashioned.” His work is nostalgic, working against the easier, cheaper signs we see everyday printed out on vinyl. As the documentary moves us through the history of sign painting, the major movements and critical celebrities, watching the influence of technology becomes, as one puts it, “heart breaking.” Levine and Macon treat sign painting as an artistic style, one worthy of study and history.

What Sign Painters accomplishes is a respectful look at a trade and art that we all take for granted, and the true artists who are dedicated to making signs for people, not just businesses, but the people who get to enjoy them. While many businesses are content to not use painted signs, but there are the designers who make places stand out, whose artistry actively contributes to the aesthetic of the world we take in everyday.

Sign painters are here to stay. Still.