By: Katherine Denzin
Originally posted: September 15th, 2022
This article has been re-posted as part of our Throwback Thursday series.
This article is part of our Summer 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
For many, stucco and plain white siding is decidedly boring in the modern neighborhood. Flat walls act as canvases for murals and are a unique opportunity for cities to convey culture, support local artists and cultivate community among its residents. A quick bus ride through the East Lansing and the Greater Lansing area reveals plenty of colorful murals with unique origins and messages. Public art like murals doesn’t only add aesthetic value to a town but can also become an agent of change and conjure thought-provoking conversations.
“Cities become great hosts to murals because of the inherent intersections between sectors and social services, history, culture and more,” said Dustin Hunt, a prominent mural artist in the Lansing area and founder of Muralmatics, a company focused on creating murals and empowering student creativity. “I think the best murals catch people’s attention and make them think, wonder and imagine—a challenging feat.”
Recently, public art in the form of murals has differentiated itself from street art. Murals have become a tool within a city for activism, inclusion and economic development, often promoted or sponsored by the city. In contrast, street art is usually unauthorized and impromptu, employing styles like graffiti and stenciling. Every city has different policies regarding the placement of public art, a distinction which shapes what types of murals are painted.
Murals have huge benefits for the residents of a city. Hunt hosts youth-centered projects that teach kids not only art but also perceptions of public art, pre-algebra concepts related to scaling and creative problem solving.
“As arts programming in schools and communities continues to dwindle, the need for high-quality, creative programming is more critical than ever,” Hunt said. “I equate youth-centered projects that are truly memorable and inspiring to planting seeds of hope.”
Public art funding and initiatives are becoming more and more scarce, and initiatives like Hunt’s help keep the arts alive as other programs get cut. The murals produced by Muralmatics provide the Lansing area with art education that teaches about the possibilities of conveying emotions and causes through large-scale pieces.
Beyond advocacy for art, murals contribute to communities through attraction and a way to manifest community values. Victor Ving and Lisa Beggs, collectively known as the Greetings Tour, are the artists behind the “Greetings from East Lansing” mural on Harrison Road. They collaborate with local artists and cities to create postcard style murals across the country, with their East Lansing installment completed in the summer of 2021.
For the Greetings Tour, local residents and artists are “able to add some local flair outside of the cliche imagery due to their extensive knowledge of the cities.” Their project in particular demonstrates an important aspect of murals: the localization and economic factors associated with public art.
“Our murals also have an added element of helping local communities with increased tourism,” the couple said.
Indeed, murals can help the vitality of communities. Cities like Philadelphia, often called the City of Murals or Mural Capital of the World, have used murals as an urban rebranding and attraction tactic. In areas where there is a large concentration of urban blight and graffiti, murals can help to revitalize an area and create a community solution. The “Greetings from East Lansing” mural operates similarly since it acts as a two dimensional attraction.
“It’s exciting to see people from all over coming to our community to see that mural,” said Heather Majano, the art festival & art initiatives coordinator for the City of East Lansing. “They want to see the other art that we have. Then they want to check out our local businesses and it gives a cool factor to the city.”
Community-created and maintained murals give people ownership of their community and a place to express themselves, even after artists like the Greetings Tour have gone. The “Life is a Groovy Opportunity” mural located on the nicknamed Hamster Cage parking garage on Albert Street is another example of a community based mural project, this time in collaboration with Michigan State University’s Department of Art, Art History and Design.
The “Groovy Opportunities” mural is a 5-year installment with designs incorporated from various people and students.
“They bring a piece of themselves,” Majano said. “But it’s often an interpretation of our community through their lens.”
The uplifting mural depicts a large portrait of a woman, a few large fish and a bunch of small, animate shapes that, according to an article by arts & culture reporter Sarah Spohn for East Lansing Information, are genderless and raceless to be more inclusive to those viewing the mural. All these murals contribute to the local community by attracting people to engage in community identity, whether the viewer is a resident or a visitor.
Murals are supposed to spark conversations, something upon which Hunt, Majano and the Greetings Tour all agree. Often, this conversation is about community values, but a lot of public art, especially murals and architecture, can be controversial. There are examples in East Lansing that demonstrate how art can engage communities in conversations relating to aesthetics, authenticity and social movements.
The Broad Art Museum, with its stark, angular, modern design situated in the historic brick-clad north neighborhood, garnered criticism and backlash when it was built. The Greetings Tour was fascinated by the controversial design of the museum.
“It’s a strong similarity to the reaction we get with a lot of our work, or public murals in general,” they said. But, even controversial art and design can become part of the overall landscape as did the Broad Museum on the Michigan State University campus; the museum is prominently featured in the Greetings Tour’s mural. Along the way, it prompted a discussion about what kind of architecture and vibe should be featured in the MSU landscape.
“We even had some resistance to the graffiti piece we originally painted over,” the Greetings Tour said. “However, we invited that local graffiti artist to come help us paint our mural and we even added a little hidden tribute back into the mural if you can find it!”
Public art can be much more than murals and feel-good messages—many of the installations in the Lansing, East Lansing and Michigan State University areas reflect themes of social justice, diversity, politics and community.
The MSU Rock is an example of public art rooted in emotion and politics rather than board approval and private buildings. The defacing of the Rock dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s in protest to the Vietnam War, along with messages of romantic engagement since it was historically a place for couples to meet. It now serves as a message board, memorial site and advocacy place for the students of MSU. The underside of nearby Farm Lane Bridge features ever changing graffiti that often reflects student sentiments, feelings and art in a contained yet unauthorized capacity.
In downtown Lansing, one of Dustin Hunt’s murals titled “Courage” has a deeper meaning connected to social justice.
“In 2021, I painted a mural of a dear friend, Santoria, inspired by conversations around racial injustice and global protests to police brutality,” Hunt said. “[It] was painted to honor and celebrate Black women alive and thriving.”
Murals and public art are most impactful and conversational when they involve social issues; that is where agents of change and recognition start. In the “Greetings from East Lansing” mural, the artists and the arts commission wanted to acknowledge the indigenous Anishinaabe people and so consulted the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center. They also held a land acknowledgement ceremony before painting the mural. The Arts Commission for the City of East Lansing, the branch responsible for approving and commissioning designs, is turning their focus to representation with new pieces in development.
“You don’t have to be connected to the city whatsoever to know that you’re welcome and that you are safe,” said Majano regarding the commission’s new focus on diversity and inclusion.
The City of East Lansing is involved with the placement of murals in the area. In an article titled “Taming murals in the city: a foray into mural policies, practices, and regulation,” published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy, Eynat Mendelson-Shwartz and Nir Mualam discuss how different cities approach mural policies.
“There are cities that perceive murals as a localized and independent ad hoc phenomenon, while others integrate murals into broader urban or cultural strategies such as graffiti management policies or public art master plans,” Medelson-Schwartz and Mualam said. East Lansing more closely resembles the second hypothetical option. The city actively cultivates partnerships and collaborations when it comes to murals and public art, especially when new establishments and redevelopment occur.
As Majano explained, there is legislation within East Lansing that requires any new or redevelopments “to put a portion of their total budget towards art, up to $25,000, and they can either write a check to the public art fund or they can install art on their properties.” By her guess, about half of the businesses have chosen to install art on their buildings; the other half make a donation that contributes to the installation of murals and other public art elsewhere. Designs and locations of murals are approved by the arts commission and arts selection panel made up of artists, former gallery owners, and others passionate about the arts.
Murals are essentially an agreement between the artists, private property owners, local governments and the public. This agreement is delicate, however, considering the different viewpoints of what a mural’s purpose is within a city. For many people, it is supposed to be a reflection of the local community, by and for the locality. For a lot of cities, murals are a way to control unauthorized art like graffiti.
The delicate balance between communities, artists, governments and private entities can be examined by looking at the mural on the Meijer Capital City Marketplace. Built in the fall of 2020, the building features a mural of fruits and vegetables situated on green rolling hills painted by a local Lansing artist. The mural is beautiful and fitting for a grocery store, but it is different from the community initiatives and locally commissioned mural projects. A mural like this one is essentially an advertisement for Meijer, a non-local business. In this case, the community gained a beautiful mural painted by a local artist but may not have gained a true reflection of their community.
In other instances, policies and restrictions through cities can limit the impact and variety of public art. “I have encountered mindsets of committees responsible for selecting public art projects that favor more conservative, risk-avoidant, traditional proposals, which hinders creativity and limits those moments of inquiry and wonder,” said Hunt. Murals that reflect social movements or politics of the time are usually the ones that garner the most criticism. Especially for members of the public and artists, murals and other public art installations are supposed to reflect the values of an area without particular concern for approval by committees.
Crack Art, a program in East Lansing recently cut due to lack of clarity and funding issues, allowed residents of East Lansing to submit art and create their own small-scale public art called crack art on public surfaces. A program like this would allow an even greater amount of community involvement. Since crack art is on a smaller scale, it is more accessible to everyone and not restricted to formal artists or planners. Ideas like crack art are small ways the public can make big differences on their built and lived environment while upholding the agreement by gaining approval to install art. The unfortunate discontinuance of the crack art program reveals the fragility of public art installation and the importance of advocacy and passion for art such as murals.
Public art is a delicate agreement between the viewers, the artists, the localities and private property owners involved in the design and placement. The Greater Lansing area is home to incredible murals created by amazing artists. Rooted in the values of the community and the causes of its activist causes, murals and interesting programs create a significant opportunity to expand art’s reach throughout the Lansing area.
Katherine Denzin is a sophomore majoring in history and statistics. She works as the assistant editor-in-chief of The Red Cedar Log and is involved with a start-up publication about policy, Matters of Fact. When not writing, studying or pursuing her latest fixation, she enjoys reading, re-watching movies and baking cookies or pretzels.