Friday, May 2, 2014

Pondering Street Murals

By Charles Kessler
Still from Monty Python's Life of Brian.
The street murals I'm most familiar with are the ones proliferating in Downtown Jersey City (where I live) and Bushwick (where I spend a lot of time). Most are done with skill; the best are done with panache. They're flamboyant, bold and fun — more fun anyway than the rather dour, preachy or psychedelic murals of the past. They also have a wider variety of styles and subjects than in the past — which is good since I've become bored with the cartoony look (delightful as Kenny Scharf's murals still are).
Kenny Scharf, Lafayette between Prince and Spring (photo: Street Art NYC).
New York City murals, especially those in Bushwick, are well documented by the press, and in addition, there's an invaluable iPhone app, Street Art NYC, with in-depth coverage of New York City street murals. It has hundreds of excellent photographs, information on the artists, and it's updated regularly. Best of all, the app flags the murals on a map and uses GPS so you can locate ones nearby. Touch a flag, and a reproduction of the mural pops up; touch the reproduction, and information about the artist and mural is displayed. Neat!

So I'm not going to spend time on Bushwick murals other than showing you two unusual ones that I especially like:
Beau-Stanton, Troutman Street Street near St. Nicholas, Bushwick (a Brooklyn Collective project).
Never, 12 Grattan Street between Bogart and Morgan in Bushwick, near the 56 Bogart galleries (photo: Street Art NYC).
If you want to see some Bushwick street murals in person, there is a group of about 15-20 good ones located on both sides of Troutman street, in the three blocks between Cypress and Irving streets.
Troutman Street between St. Nicholas and Wyckoff streets, Bushwick
Not surprisingly, Jersey City murals haven't received nearly as much coverage as New York murals. The March issue of Instigatorzine, a Jersey City based magazine, has several articles on Jersey City street murals, and there's been a little coverage in The Jersey Journal, a local newspaper – but that's pretty much it. And although I wrote about Jersey City street art before, I didn't cover street murals. So, to make amends, here are several of them:
Blair Urban Mural, 180 Newark Avenue.
Dulk, in front of FJB Comics, 17 Coles Street (a Savage Habbit project).
NoseGo on left; LNY on right, A monument to the vile maxim of the masters of Mankind, 129 Columbus Drive, Downtown Jersey City. (both Savage Habbit projects).
Pixel Pancho, parking lot side of 143 Columbus Drive, Downtown Jersey City (a Savage Habbit project).
Sage Collective, driveway along side 172 Newark Avenue in Downtown Jersey City, 90 feet long.
As much as I love these new murals and value the liveliness they bring to urban street life, murals might not be a good thing for cities in the long run because they inevitably deteriorate within 10-15 years and end up looking worse than if there was nothing there at all.

In 1996-97 I was involved, in an administrative capacity, with an enormous mural project (350 feet long, up to 60 feet high) on Christopher Columbus Drive between Grove and Barrow streets in Downtown Jersey City.
Pro Arts, right side of the Columbus Drive Mural, 1997, 110-138 Columbus Drive (photo: Wally Gobetz, taken 2008 when it was already fading).
It was an expensive project funded by the Economic Development Corporation with the intention of dressing up an unattractive street in the heart of the commercial district. I think it’s fair to say that more care and expense went into the long-term preservation of this mural than for any mural painted in Bushwick or Jersey City in the last few years. Most of the budget, and most of the effort, was spent on preparation of the surface to prevent future pealing and cracking. In addition, the best light-fast paints were used, and a UV coating was applied. Yet today, seventeen years after completion, the mural is a faded, pealing, graffiti-ridden eyesore – and it has been for some time.
Detail of the Christopher Columbus mural showing faded and pealing paint and graffiti (photo taken 2014).
Yes, graffiti-ridden. While new murals might deter graffiti, old, faded, pealing ones attract it the way any run-down building would. And even the new murals don’t necessarily deter graffiti nearby.
View showing the other side of the driveway from Sage Collective's mural at 172 Newark Avenue in Downtown Jersey City.
Unless there’s a commitment, financial and otherwise, for long-term upkeep and preservation, it is better to treat street murals as a temporary art form. They should be reserved for buildings that are likely to be either demolished or renovated in five or ten years, or they should be continually painted over and new ones created, as was the case with the sadly defunct 5Pointz in Long Island City and Jersey City's former “Wall of Fame.”

Whether it's intended or not, I expect most of the street murals in Bushwick and Downtown Jersey City will be gone before they deteriorate too much anyway. Bushwick (sad to say for the art scene) is gentrifying so quickly that most of the buildings with murals will soon be demolished or rehabilitated before the murals deteriorate. And while Downtown Jersey City is already gentrified, most of the murals are located in surface parking lots, and buildings will inevitably be constructed on these lots as land becomes more and more valuable.

As to the Columbus Drive mural, renewal of the street is proceeding rapidly.
Columbus Drive mural today, May 2, 2014.
One building on the block has been demolished, and three buildings are undergoing rehabilitation, including one that has already painted over the mural. It's probably for the best.

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