An Unusual Medium: Murals

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Photo by Toa Heftiba

At Smoke Creatives, we’re all about storytelling. An Unusual Medium is our series where we take a look at some of the more unconventional storytelling mediums and celebrate them in all their glory. In this post, we’re looking at murals.

The History

Murals have been around since humans learnt to paint and carve on cave walls. The oldest are thought to be from around 40,000 years ago and while we can never be sure of their exact purpose, it’s suggested they were decorations, communication methods, or used in religious ceremonies. Murals have gone from adorning cave walls to covering the interiors and exteriors of all sorts of buildings but what’s remained constant is their ability to give us a picture of society at a certain point in time, showing us how people have lived, what they’ve valued, and what they’ve worshiped.

The Noteworthy

It was the Mexican Muralist movement following the Mexican Revolution that gave murals their standing as a powerful communication device. In the 1920s, the new government commissioned many public works of art to promote their values to the people, many of whom were illiterate. Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were some of the principal artists of the movement, painting their murals in and on schools, government buildings, and the National Palace.

One of the most prominent muralists today is Banksy. Known for his (assuming he is one man) work tackling various political and social issues, his pieces are often subversive and created with a unique stencilling technique. The anonymous graffiti artist started working in his hometown of Bristol in the 90s and has since travelled around the world, leaving his mark on houses in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and on the Israeli West Bank wall. His detractors still say his work is vandalism but Banksy believes placing art in the streets rather than in galleries is returning art to the people.

Unlike typical muralists, Haas & Hahn create their works out of entire buildings, squares, and streets. The two Dutch artists, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, have painted favelas in Rio de Janeiro and ghettos in Philadelphia in the hopes that their work can bring about positive changes to these areas. Acknowledging that a painting project can’t completely regenerate a neighbourhood, Urhahn believes art can alter people’s attitudes, making them take a bit more pride and care in their streets.

Why Smoke Loves Them

As a visual storytelling medium, murals have the dual impact of looking great as well as having something to say, often without words. Being accessible to everyone, easy to spot, and easily understood, murals can be powerful pieces of political art used in social activism or protest. Murals can also communicate lifesaving information. An artist renowned for his work in this area is Stephen Doe, who spread awareness of Ebola in Liberia during the epidemic through creating murals detailing the symptoms of the disease. Whether relaying important messages, making a politically-charged statement, or giving neighbourhoods some character, murals have both power and responsibility.