Murals: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

No one can dispute that art is subjective. This makes it singularly challenging to select work for a public art project that is on par with high-quality art, withstands the test of time, and speaks to, and on behalf of, the community.

So I’d humbly like to offer this cautionary tale.

This spring, we have not one, but two calls for mural proposals. The City of Peterborough’s Public Art Program in partnership with the Downtown Business Improvement Area are commissioning several murals over the next five years; and in conjunction with Artspace, the City has also announced phase II of the Hunter Street Bridge Mural Project.

Hunter St Bridge Mural

Kirsten McCrea painting the Hunter St Bridge Mural

In 2015 Toronto artist Kirsten McCrea painted the phase I mural on the underside of our historic bridge, with colourful patterns and symbols, which is already showing up as a backdrop in advertisements and fashion shoots.

But murals in themselves can be problematic as public art.

A mural is not a painting. There is nothing worse than a painting scaled up to become a mural, unless it’s that all-too-common cliché of a collaged, self-referential illustration of historical vignettes – folks in period costumes, horses, trains, and well … it’s a frighteningly short spectrum between first-rate public art and cheesy decoration.

Jerm IX

Local street artist JERM IX has raised controversy with his stencil art.

A badly conceived mural can undermine the integrity of architecture. A beautiful building, whether contemporary or heritage, needs no embellishment.

And do we really need a realistic nature scene on a wall when we are surrounded by natural beauty?

Murals uniquely don’t draw tourism, unlike investment in performance or festivals, heritage buildings, galleries and museums.

Outdoor murals usually begin to deteriorate and become shabby after a few years if not rigorously maintained.

And they lack commitment – if you decide you don’t like them, just paint over them in a few years.

William Kentrdige's reverse graffiti

William Kentrdige’s reverse graffiti

So what mural projects possess that magic staying power? Large-scale art with a story and a message works best if you’re Diego Rivera, whose murals still galvanize our imagination with their muscular depictions of the working class. South African artist William Kentridge used a technique of “reverse graffiti” by power-washing centuries of dirt off the stone on the embankments of Rome’s Tiber River, eliciting images that will naturally fade over time. Swoon and Banksy’s intentionally ephemeral and political street art is ironically now in the collection of MoMA.

Graffiti is also public art, if unsolicited. Vandalism may not be the optimal path to self-expression, but when I see empty buildings covered with graffiti, it seems a vital response to a space that is neglected and underutilized. A fence along the bike path becomes a fluid, running commentary on predation, emotional states, identity, and territory – a community billboard, temporal and collaborative.

Some graffiti artists such as Atlanta’s Alex Brewer, also known as Hense the Name, have rightly evolved into legitimate and sought-after mural artists.

When successful, public art uplifts our spirits and unites us. In Peterborough, the Citizen’s War Memorial in Confederation Park from 1929 holds up well, reflecting the universal anguish of war. Esker, Michael Belmore and Mary Ann Barkhouse’s charming sculpture in Millennium Park reminds us that “that everything begins, and ends, with nature.” Recently Jimson Bowler’s Big Loon Portage bus wrap was a too-short-lived mural in motion that transported us with divine insouciance on a mythic journey, evoking the history of Indigenous migrations, and our collective love of the iconic canoe.

 Jimson Bowler’s Big Loon Portage

Jimson Bowler’s Big Loon Portage

The importance of the selection committee should not be overstated. “I know what I like” isn’t a good model for potential jurors when it comes to choosing work that will be seen publicly over an indefinite period. Shouldn’t we insist on a background of broad based art education for our jurors?

If Peterborough is to become the mural capital of Canada, as Terry Guiel of the DBIA suggests, we need to examine what genuinely enhances our cultural milieu rather than clutters it with decor. More is not, in the case of murals, better.

Legal, Alberta, with a population of 1,225, purports to be the Francophone Mural Capital of Canada, though some of its community members expressed concern with an overly enthusiastic expansion to the walls of private houses. I stand with Mayor St. Jean of Legal when he asks, “When does it start looking tacky, Ernie?”

Thumbs down to garnishes, ornaments, prettification. This investment in mural art can only have lasting value if the work itself is substantial and reflects undeniable quality.


Graffiti cover photo by Ann Jaeger. Big Loon Portage photo by Wayne Eardley for Artspace, used with permission. JERM IX photo by Gabe Pollock.

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.