Street Art Used To Be the Voice of the People. Now It’s the Voice of Advertisers.

Corporations like Red Bull and Stella Artois are co-opting graffiti art.

Christine MacDonald March 11, 2019

Street murals, often used for political messaging, are becoming increasingly co-opted by corporations and developers.

Los Ange­les, a city once known as the mur­al cap­i­tal of the world, issued a city­wide mur­al mora­to­ri­um in 2002 to crack down on the grow­ing issue of out­door adver­tis­ing pass­ing as street art. The ban remained in place until a 2013 ordi­nance over­turned it and set down strict new rules pro­hibit­ing com­mer­cial mes­sages in street murals.

For some artists, the only way to avoid a corporate takeover of the mind, so to speak, is by steering clear of commercial commissions altogether.

But in one of the first murals to go up the fol­low­ing year, by famous graf­fi­ti artist Risk, onlook­ers quick­ly noticed the spade-shaped logo of Miller For­tune beer. The adver­tise­ment sparked out­rage and was quick­ly removed for vio­lat­ing the ordinance.

As more cor­po­ra­tions and real estate devel­op­ers across the coun­try turn to murals to hawk their prod­ucts, con­tro­ver­sy fol­lows. In New York City, for instance, Tar­get had to apol­o­gize for a mur­al it installed inside a new store in the East Vil­lage. While the mur­al was designed as an homage to the neighborhood’s his­to­ry as a home to punk rock­ers and strug­gling immi­grants alike, it drew crit­i­cism for mak­ing light of the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion that had trans­formed the neighborhood.

Cor­po­ra­tions are one of the major threats to the mod­ern mur­al move­ment,” explained Cory Stow­ers, a mural­ist and graf­fi­ti artist based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. They are co-opt­ing the move­ment and the aes­thet­ic for the cre­ation of cor­po­rate art.” (Stow­ers, asso­ciate direc­tor of DC Murals, con­sult­ed with Hola Cul­tura, co-found­ed by the author, on a project doc­u­ment­ing Lati­no murals in 2017.)

It’s an iron­ic trend con­sid­er­ing that today’s com­mu­ni­ty murals move­ment has its roots in the New Deal era and the Social­ist Real­ism of the Mex­i­can Murals Move­ment. A cen­tu­ry ago, Diego Rivera and oth­er artists cre­at­ed pub­lic art to uni­fy Mex­i­co in the wake of its 1910 rev­o­lu­tion, cel­e­brat­ing the country’s indige­nous his­to­ry and its hero­ic work­ing class.” That influ­ence can be seen decades lat­er in Chi­cano mural­ism in the Unit­ed States and oth­er mural­ism around the world, which serve as pow­er­ful edu­ca­tion­al and orga­niz­ing tools for cor­rect­ing his­tor­i­cal inac­cu­ra­cies and cel­e­brat­ing shared values.

In the 1930s and 1940s, for exam­ple, the U.S. Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion hired thou­sands of out-of-work artists to lift the spir­its of a nation in the grips of the Great Depres­sion by por­tray­ing the Amer­i­can scene.” They cre­at­ed more than 15,000 art­works for uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment The Brand-writ­ing on the Wall Cor­po­ra­tions co-opt street art build­ings, includ­ing murals that depict­ed peo­ple work­ing in fac­to­ries, farms and ten­e­ments, as well as icons of Amer­i­can ideals such as Abra­ham Lin­coln and Walt Whitman.

Today, com­mu­ni­ty murals con­tin­ue going up in inner-city ghet­tos, bar­rios, fave­las and shan­ty-towns world­wide, inspired by those ear­li­er move­ments and water­shed works such as William Walker’s 1967 Wall of Respect” in Chica­go, which hon­ored W.E.B. Du Bois, Nina Simone, Mal­colm X and oth­er African-Amer­i­can icons. This mural’s influ­ence lives on in works such as Keir Johnston’s and Willis Nomo” Humphrey’s 2018 mur­al, Remem­ber­ing a For­got­ten Hero,” which cel­e­brates the life of Octavius V. Cat­to, who fought for vot­ing rights for African Amer­i­cans only to be assas­si­nat­ed in 1871.

Increas­ing­ly, how­ev­er, cor­po­ra­tions have laid claim to pub­lic art in ways crit­ics say make mural­ists accom­plices to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and con­sumerism. Wyn­wood, an upscale devel­op­ment in a down­trod­den neigh­bor­hood of Mia­mi, is per­haps the most infa­mous case of devel­op­ers using murals to art­wash” a com­mu­ni­ty, as art in ser­vice of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is called. Gold­man Prop­er­ties bought up blocks of aban­doned ware­hous­es and dilap­i­dat­ed homes, then com­mis­sioned graf­fi­ti artists to cre­ate large-scale murals to beau­ti­fy the neighborhood.

The result­ing out­door mur­al park, Wyn­wood Walls, became the cen­ter­piece of the new upscale neigh­bor­hood that Gold­man Prop­er­ties carved out of the Puer­to Rican enclave locals once called Lit­tle San Juan 

To tourists, art lovers and those mov­ing into the expen­sive new homes, the late Tony Gold­man, Wynwood’s devel­op­er, was a pub­lic art vision­ary. But soci­ol­o­gist Mar­cos Feld­man labels him a pro­fes­sion­al neigh­bor­hood gen­tri­fi­er” in the short doc­u­men­tary Right to Wyn­wood,” which looks at how the devel­op­ment dis­placed long­time res­i­dents. Film­mak­ers Cami­la Álvarez and Natal­ie Edgar told WLRN pub­lic radio that, as artists, they like the vibran­cy of the new Wyn­wood. But, Álvarez said, the murals felt kind of arti­fi­cial because a busi­ness mod­el was brought and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion was planned. It was devel­op­er-led, instead of being artist-led.”

Com­mer­cial inter­ests have fund­ed the rise of inter­na­tion­al­ly known street artists like Shep­ard Fairey, author of the Oba­ma Hope posters, along with a Levi’s cloth­ing col­lec­tion and wall art built around Fairey’s Obey” trade­mark. Some­times the murals don’t include overt com­mer­cial mes­sages but help a brand get their name out there in the sub­cul­ture,” Man One, a graf­fi­ti artist in Los Ange­les, told the TV sta­tion KCET. His mur­al, Ele­phunk­tl,” a styl­ized ele­phant wear­ing a feath­ered head­dress on a store­front in Lin­coln Heights, Calif., was paid for by Red Bull, for instance. While the mur­al does not include a direct Red Bull ref­er­ence, the brand has received plen­ty of pub­lic­i­ty for its video show­ing Man One’s artis­tic process.

The ads work because they don’t look like ads, says Francesca Romana Puggel­li, who teach­es a course on adver­tis­ing psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Con­sumers, par­tic­u­lar­ly younger peo­ple resis­tant to tra­di­tion­al adver­tis­ing, don’t think what does this mur­al want from me?’” she says. They just see art.”

But some artists wor­ry this type of spon­sored” mural­ism could dam­age society’s sup­port for pub­lic art, by blur­ring the lines between art and adver­tis­ing and mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for street artists to find walls that haven’t been mon­e­tized. Adver­tis­ers now rou­tine­ly pay build­ing own­ers thou­sands of dol­lars a month to rent a wall.

Some street artists, who con­sid­er cor­po­rate graf­fi­ti an oxy­moron, have tak­en aim at those they con­sid­er sell­outs. Joey Krebs, known as The Phan­tom Street Artist, is among those who accuse Fairey of rip­ping off the art­work of gen­uine polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al move­ments like the Black Pan­thers to advance his own mar­ket and pub­lic rela­tions interests.”

Fairey respond­ed to crit­i­cism of his work at Wyn­wood Walls in an inter­view with the Mia­mi New Times, say­ing, Art can prime the neigh­bor­hood for gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Blam­ing art is the wrong tac­tic, though. Look­ing at poli­cies around aggres­sive busi­ness prac­tices is a more tar­get­ed approach to the problem.”

Like many artists, Eliza­ve­ta Meksin, a New York City-based artist and assis­tant pro­fes­sor of art at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, sees upsides and down­sides to cor­po­rate mural­ism. Artists deserve to make a liv­ing,” says Meksin. Com­mis­sions from cor­po­ra­tions often pay much more than the few thou­sand dol­lars mural­ists usu­al­ly receive from gov­ern­ment agen­cies and non­prof­its for com­mu­ni­ty murals.

But for some artists, the only way to avoid a cor­po­rate takeover of the mind, so to speak, is by steer­ing clear of com­mer­cial com­mis­sions altogether.

Aaron John­son-Ortiz is one such artist. Last year, he fin­ished his first mur­al on the façade of a Min­neapo­lis build­ing that hous­es a work­ers’ cen­ter and a ten­ants’ rights group. The project was com­mis­sioned by Cen­tro de Tra­ba­jadores Unidos en Lucha (Cen­ter for Work­ers Unit­ed in Strug­gle), after the Min­neapo­lis city coun­cil vot­ed to raise the city’s min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.

When John­son-Ortiz asked com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers what they want­ed to see on the mur­al, they said they want­ed to see them­selves — the peo­ple mak­ing their own his­to­ry by stand­ing up for their rights. So, he used pho­tographs from pick­et lines to paint real con­struc­tion and ser­vice indus­try workers.

There is this big ques­tion around what is the role of artists in social jus­tice,” John­son-Ortiz says. So for me to do the mur­al at the work­ers’ cen­ter and the ten­ants’ union [build­ing] felt real­ly good because it meant I was ampli­fy­ing the mes­sage of the peo­ple doing the work.

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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