Mural mutuality: Art bringing people together

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on May 10, 2018

Jeremy, a 20-something street artist in Louisville, KY, is well aware that murals have a unique ability to draw people together. In city after city, he has seen outdoor art galleries connect communities, inspire cultural pride, and revitalize low-income neighborhoods.

“In some cities, they have mural tours or certain parts of town have become outdoor galleries,” he said. “People tend to congregate in these areas. It is a topic of conversation when you are around public art and if the mural is inspired by the community it is in, the people there feel an even deeper connection.” 

Jeremy and his three best friends, Max, Jacob, and Ian, also budding artists, have traveled across the country for over a decade creating art in abandoned buildings, researching technique from other graffiti artists, and honing their craft. In 2016, they brought what they learned back home to Louisville, launching the Often Seen Rarely Spoken (OSRS) art collective in an effort to convert their passion for creativity into a career. The collective contracts with public, private, and corporate clients to produce murals, fine art, painted signage, and digital design projects.

“We were all either still in school or working behind desks, but all we ever talked about was what we were going to do next, and it was always about painting, never about our jobs,” said Jeremy. “As our interests and experience expanded, we eventually outgrew painting under bridges. We started chasing a bigger goal.”

Most recently, OSRS worked with MassMutual Foundation to produce a wall-sized mural of blue and white roses, designed collaboratively with New York marketing agency Giant Spoon, at the Churchill Downs racetrack, host of the Kentucky Derby. MassMutual made a charitable donation to the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities, for each public photo of the mural that was tagged or shared on social media.

It doesn’t surprise Jeremy that horseracing (and urban art) fans have embraced the project. In a way that indoor galleries do not, he said, street art invites onlookers from all walks of life to interact, initiate dialogue, and of course, take selfies. Murals are approachable. They’re honest. And they build bridges between communities, which MassMutual applauds.

“When you’re walking past murals, it takes you in,” said Jeremy. “You’re surrounded by color and art and you can’t not notice it. People take selfies every time because that’s how we communicate in today’s world. Social media is how we tell our stories.”

Murals revitalize

Urban art is a growing trend in former industrial centers and residential enclaves worldwide, capable of transforming troubled communities into hipster havens.

The Wynwood Art District in Miami, for example, which encompasses more than 50 city blocks, is one of the largest open-air street art installations in the world. The former garment district, which was experiencing an economic exodus just 15 years ago, now boasts 70 galleries and more than 200 larger-than-life outdoor murals, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who come as much to experience the art as they do for the chic stores, craft breweries, and artisanal restaurants.

“Over the past decade, Wynwood has transformed from a 9-to-5 warehouse district into a vibrant hub for arts and culture that is a favorite for locals and visitors, alike,” the Wynwood Business Improvement District said in an email statement. “The former industrial district’s transformation was kick-started in part by street artists who transformed the blocks of drab warehouse walls into a de facto open-air public art gallery covered with an ever-changing lineup of bright, eye-catching murals.”

Outdoor art has also become an important segue for community outreach, giving vulnerable residents an opportunity to develop skills and engage with local business leaders.

In Philadelphia, for example, the Mural Arts Program was started in the 1980s as a way to combat graffiti, but fast became a public/private partnership. Today, the program creates project-based learning opportunities for at-risk youth, inmates, addicts, and those suffering from abuse and mental illness, empowering them to help design and paint outdoor murals, which now number nearly 4,000 throughout the city. 

Skeptics and community organizers expressed their doubts when the program began, but later told The New York Times that, through community meetings, racial tensions have subsided. Black and white residents, who had been at odds for years, began a constructive dialogue initially about the mural composition, but then about other matters important to the neighborhood, like trash collection and street repair, Tony Johnson, a Philadelphia resident at the time, told the newspaper in 2008.

“This was a bad neighborhood at one time,” he said. “Now people have some understanding; they are uniting together.”

The New York City Department of Probation, the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District, and nonprofit artists group Groundswell are hoping to have a similar impact in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is in need of restoration. The group unveiled two large public artworks in 2014 with a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project has since produced additional murals by engaging local businesses, community members, and young adults on probation who work together to design and paint murals on vandalized walls. 

As for Jeremy and the rest of the OSRS team, they’re excited to see what impact their art will have in the communities where they work — and where their career as mural artists will lead.

“Passionate is an understatement when it comes to us and art,” said Jeremy. “We have some big goals and big dreams. Painting on a national or international scale is the mission.”

MassMutual wishes them luck!

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, its employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.