Murals have been a “thing” since the days of cave painting. The earliest known one was discovered, still pristine, in the Chauvet cave in France and determined to be 45,500 years old. Used to express feelings, share messages, mark occasions and really for any number of reasons, cave paintings may well have been an early form of “Kilroy was here.”
Murals today have many different meanings and reasons for existing; some are political, while others are purely a celebration of the arts. Some small towns have beautiful murals on the walls of their old buildings, replicating the shops and services that once stood there, a celebration of history and a way to keep the sweet small-town feeling alive even though the businesses have moved away. Others have a theme in mind, celebrating milestones like bicentennials. The Harriet Tubman mural in Cambridge, Maryland, is such a powerful piece of work, with her outstretched hand and its promise of freedom.
Since a mural is considered a sign, it falls under the city’s sign ordinances. And this isn’t a factory, complete with assembly lines: the arrangement for each creation, the acquisition, installation and upkeep are all unique to each public piece of art. The city of Salem, Oregon, has art everywhere, and there are many ways to look at it; one particularly fun way to see the art collection is through the online Public Art Scavenger Hunt. This virtual adventure tests participants’ knowledge of eight outdoor artworks and also provides a bird’s-eye view of the city. The Salem Public Art Collection is managed by the Salem Public Art Commission, and there are pieces placed throughout the city.
Trevor Smith, public information officer for the city of Salem, spoke at length about this specific style of art project. “There’s a difference between murals painted on the side of a building and street art. First thing to consider is that the side of any building is going to be affected by the city sign codes. People have to adhere to certain codes and sizes and dimensions, and there are art council rules as well as others. The mural has to be kept up, kept in good condition. A lot depends on the paints used, on the skills and experience of the artists and so on. We have to be able to take photos for promotional use, and they have to look good.”
Speaking of street murals, Smith said, “While it’s true that in some areas and cities this type of mural may be political, here they are more about pride in our local artists and showing off what they can do and what we want you to see and feel about our city.”
Salem’s downtown murals feature designs such as the “Mirror Maze” by Damien Gilley and Blaine Fontana’s work, “Waldo Stewards,” which honors the smallest redwood park in the world, known as Waldo Park. The design for the latter mural encompasses Salem’s own pileated woodpeckers and pine cones.
Smith further explained in the city’s quest to bring beauty and art to the neighborhoods, three murals are already painted, “and there are five more waiting for the weather to get sunny enough to add them. We don’t want to replace them; we want to keep adding more. We have to have permits from the public works department because, really, we own the streets. There has to be 60% approval from the surrounding neighbors, and the neighborhood associations are responsible for the upkeep. We’ll make recommendations as to what kind of paint should be used, what kind of top coat to seal — things like that. And they have to be kept nice. Eye appeal, you know!”
Though the murals are always sealed with ultraviolet protectants, the sunlight fades the colors quickly, and, of course, the street pieces have the added stress of traffic.
As for graffiti and other defacement, Smith noted, “Vandalism is always an issue, but it’s not huge. Not massive. It happens. We’re a city. We can deal with it.”
It’s largely up to the business to maintain the appearance. Though he noted, “There could be funding initiatives in the public works to do that. But mostly public works are more about permits and following rules, wanting to be certain that everything is consistent and appropriate. I mean, it’s true of your own house, even; you can’t just paint your house purple with green polka dots — you have to have permission to do that. So the question ultimately comes down to: Is it worthy of artistic expressions?”
The original artist can stay involved as long as they want to or as long as they can. They can do the renovations and touch-ups as needed, because it’s their design and their work. “We have had pieces — not necessarily an entire mural — taken off the sides of buildings that will be torn down. We store them so they can eventually be put back up somewhere or put on a new building. We work in partnership with the artists; we don’t just take ownership. These things are largely contracted by property team efforts,” explained Smith. “We want more art within the city, and we are hoping that businesses and other civic-minded people will share their talents and passions. We aren’t just slapping things on the sides of other people’s property. The community at large graces us.”