Murals define our sense of place and neighborhood identity, their disappearance and destruction can therefore evoke a sense of loss. Two cases from Berlin and New York show that reasons for their disappearance are often politically charged and can be understood in the light of the process of gentrification.
A sense of deep loss hit me when I saw that the iconic mural depicting two white human figures trying to rid one another from their masks in Kreuzberg (Berlin) was painted over. The same feeling I had sensed when another famous collection of murals known as 5Pointz was painted over by night, at once abolishing a monument for gratify art work in Queens (NYC). Learning the diverse reasons for their abolishment provides us with an interesting perspective on politics, murals and the process of gentrification.
Murals, or the art of producing artwork directly on walls and/or other permanent surfaces goes back to ancient times. In modern history, probably the most famous murals originate form the Mexican Mural Renaissance where Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Joseé Clemente Orozco (also known as the big three) who painted murals with highly social and political messages in both Mexico and Northern America.
Have a look at this impressive 360° overview of one of Orozco’s murals in Dartmouth, depicting familiar themes in his artwork like indigenous people, religion, colonization, greed and modernization.
The political connotation of murals and their existence within the political sphere has been persistent throughout history, from gratify tags expressing dissatisfaction with the system to funded mural projects that take a stand for community rights. Mural art sends out a strong message and can be defining for our understanding of place and neighborhoods. They are present all over the world and express different meanings in different contexts. At the same time murals are vulnerable and, when not commissioned to be painted inside a venue, exists by the merit of the public. Art on public display can always be damaged or destroyed by those who don’t take kind to its meaning.
This brings us to Queens, New York. Here, next to the MOMA PS1, an iconic building stood for over 2 decades that had become one of the most famous public display of graffiti in the world. The huge building block had been taken over by graffiti artists. Artists rented affordable studio spaces inside the building, but it was their art on the outer walls that had taken a life of its own: 5Pointz had its own curator, artists were commissioned to paint on the walls, and people from all over the world came to visit the overwhelming display of graffiti. The building send out a powerful message of unity, advocated for the importance of graffiti and public art, and brought pride to a deprived neighborhood.
The building had always been the property of Jerry Wolkoff, who had bought the property in the 70’s, but had left it to be for a long time. After the studio’s where summoned to close due to safety issues, the artists kept working on the outer façade. However, with the neighborhood context gradually changing due to the process of gentrification, the Wolkoff family decided to start the development of their property. Their plan proposed to demolish the iconic gratify museum to build new high rise luxury condos. Understandably the artist community staged protests, but woke up on November 19th 2013 to see their work blatantly whitewashed, wiping all of 5Pointz from its existence.
As artists re-tagged the building in the wake of the whitewashing, a powerful public art project by GILF! raised awareness on the process of gentrification and its effects. The artists draped the former 5Pointz building in a roll of police caution tape that stated “Gentrification in Progress”. It is a powerful and blatant reference to the process that has clearly taken its tole on a public display of art, and raises questions on the display of power relations within the city.
On the contrary, the city of Berlin has embraced public art, realizing that the graffiti and murals have defined the city’s character as authentic and gritty. Characteristics that have drawn so many people to the capital. In Kreuzberg the italian street artist BLU has created two large scale murals that have become an iconic part of the neighborhood, drawing large crowds of tourists. The murals in Kreuzberg referenced to capitalism, and the Eastern and Western divide.
On December 12th 204, Berlin woke up to see its iconic murals had vanished, all that remained were two black walls. Speculations soon arose stating that property developers had taken a stand, but it soon came to light that it had in fact been the artist and his collaborators who had personally painted over the murals. Stating: “we felt it was time for them to vanish, along with the fading era in Berlin’s history that they represented. The story of the mural is directly linked to the history of this district of the city, which used to border directly on to East Germany.”
As the murals had become a part of what attracts so many to the city. The artist decided that in fact, the murals had become part of the process of gentrification that is turning Berlin in a city that no longer connects to the period when the murals were painted. The process of gentrification in Berlin is often said to minimise the availability of cheap housing and large vacant lots for creativity and experimentation. Characteristics that produced a context in which murals like the ones from BLU could be created.
To conclude, the political mural tradition still prevails in our cities today, in widely different contexts and depicting local and global struggles felt by individuals, neighborhoods or societies on a whole. Their relation to the process of gentrification has become increasingly obvious, and as these two instances show they can interact with one another in different ways. Murals leave a mark on the identity of a neighborhood, and probably for this reason the act of whitewashing is felt so strongly by many, evoking a feeling of loss. Fact remains that the act in itself sends out an incredible powerful message, sometimes even more politically charged than what the mural depicted in the first place.