Sep 28, 2012

Guest Blogger RJ Rushmore on Our Growing Street Cred

by: RJ Rushmore

* Off the Wall says: With our new blog, we invite voices from outside Mural Arts to contribute to the conversation. Want to contribute? Write us at offthewall [at] gmail [dot] com

Five years ago, the reputation of Mural Arts Philadelphia within the street art community was not great, if artists had heard of it at all. Within the street art scene, the program was known for conventional community murals and for making art by committee. Those traits might be great for Mural Arts Philadelphia when it’s considered as a civic organization, but they aren’t appealing to many street artists. Thanks to Steve Powers’ A Love Letter For You and the 13th Street murals, that reputation has changed dramatically.

Last spring, I was chatting with a muralist/street artist friend of mine, whom I’ll call Carl. Carl was telling me about how much he loves mural programs and festivals, and how he wanted to get involved in more of them. But Carl had one complaint about those grassroots mural festivals: He actually wants to get paid for his work rather than just doing it for fun, which is how many mural festivals get by on such meager budgets in comparison to projects run by Mural Arts Philadelphia. In passing, I mentioned that one of our mutual friends, Gaia, had worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia on a small project. Carl was excited as soon as he heard me mention Mural Arts Philadelphia. He knew about Powers’ work and Kenny Scharf’s mural on 13th Street, and of course he was happy to hear that the program pays artists fairly as well. At the end of our phone call, he said, “That’s my ideal project: Anything I can do with Mural Arts Philadelphia.” Carl is a man who has come from a background of doing street art, hopping freight trains, and just living life outside of what most people would consider “normal society,” and his dream is to work with very much within-the-system at the comparatively traditional Mural Arts Philadelphia. I don’t think his opinion is an uncommon one among the street artists who have transitioned to muralism. They’ve done their years of painting for free and fun. They aren’t going to stop that, but they also know that they are skilled and want opportunities to use cherry-pickers, not worry about police, and paint beautiful murals with the support of others. Recently, Mural Arts Philadelphia has taken some steps towards being the people supporting these artists, and it’s helped to change the perception of the program among the street art community.

While street artists and graffiti writers may have a reputation for illegal nighttime activities, that’s just a part of what they are doing today. Those who graduate from putting up work illegally are part of a new generation of muralists. Os Gemeos, a graffiti-writing pair of twins who are two of the most celebrated artists in Brazil, have developed a style that is equally at home alongside a shanty-town beneath a Sao Paulo underpass or on a wall in the middle of Manhattan. These muralists are generally less focused on “community murals” and more focused on putting art on the street for all to see, breaking down the barriers between galleries and museums and the streets. They’ll still be interested in community input, but at the end of the day they have to take the community’s ideas and run with them in their own way. With the work on 13th Street by Kenny Scharf and How&Nosm, Mural Arts Philadelphia has shown a real commitment to working with these modern muralists, and the results so far have been very promising.

A Love Letter For You made street artists go from disliking or being unaware of Mural Arts Philadelphia to being cautiously optimistic about it, but now I think that many are seeing what has happened at 13th Street and are embracing the program because it is finally looking to embrace them. I hope that 13th Street, which now has murals by Gaia, Kenny Scharf and How&Nosm, proves to be a testing-ground for Mural Arts Philadelphia rather than a one-off street art corridor, and that the work being done there can serve as a model for many more murals throughout all of Philadelphia. The street artists are ready.

You can read more of RJ’s work at Vandalog.

Last updated: Mar 21, 2016

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