By Darby Tarlow
Walking around downtown Ithaca on a bright day, it’s hard to miss the plethora of murals on each street corner and electrical box. Images of blooming flowers, Harriet Tubman, snarling dinosaurs, and many other curiosities splatter across walls and lend a backdrop to the day-to-day lives of bustling Ithacans. While these beautiful artworks permeate our spaces and our lives, their stories and ramifications yearn for exploration. Public murals have a colorful history of being intimately entwined with cultural politics and Ithaca’s murals are no exception to this tradition of transforming public spaces into public forums for cultural and political ideas.
Inspired by curiosity about the stories of the murals, I decided to investigate. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I met with Caleb R. Thomas, one of a team of organizers at Ithaca Murals, near the Ithaca Commons in front of the iconic “Black-eyed Susan” mural, an ode to the beautiful native blossom by artist Kellie Cox. Battling the cacophony of buses and cars speeding past, Thomas carefully articulated what it means for social activism to be expressed through public art. He quoted famous artist and social activist Favianna Rodriguez: “When culture shifts, policy changes.” This breed of social activism aims to inspire cultural shifts as the catalyst for institutional reformation.
Many of the murals we encountered on the guided tour encoded a morality exalting multiculturalism, diversity, and nature:
Honoring local Indigenous Peoples of the region (Brandon Lazore, 400 year Anniversary Mural, 2013); Honoring African-American history (Jonathon Matas, On the Master’s Horse, 2010); Honoring native plants (Kellie Cox, Native Plants of NY, 2012); Honoring Muslim culture (Lachlan Chambliss, Portals to Peace).
Thomas pointed out that in a downtown space built primarily by and for dead white men, the public artworks serve to showcase voices that otherwise would get lost within the dominant cultural narrative. The murals give visibility and legitimacy to an anthology of other voices that construct Ithaca’s identity.
A Mural Story
The birth of a mural begins with a concept. An artist submits a concept to City Hall with a wall in mind. Ithaca’s City Hall assesses the art submissions based on a number of criteria (found in the Public Art Plan for the City of Ithaca, 2003): “(1) Artistic merit and quality of work; (2) Safety and durability of work; (3) Unrestricted public viewing of work; (4) Administration of work (shipping, installation, maintenance); and (5) Balanced inventory in the permanent collection.” After a particular artwork gains approval, then the process of negotiating terms with the artist begins and a contract is formed. There are preapproved city spaces by the Board of Public Works, or alternatively, an artist can petition to paint a non-preapproved space.
The contract between the artist and the city negotiates the details of what the artwork will be, where it will be, liability in case of an accident, responsibility for supplies, reimbursement, maintenance of the artwork, and credit for the work, as well as giving the city the right to remove or paint over the artwork at any time for any reason. While the city gives its blessing to paint on city spaces and helps with the legality of the process, the onus largely falls on the artists to find outside resources to help them bring each artwork to fruition.
Funding is primarily raised through external nonprofits, donations from private businesses, crowd-sourcing, or volunteered time and supplies from the artist. On occasion, the city has the motive and means to commission a mural, but this is rare and tied to a specific location. For example, the city commissioned seven murals in the Collegetown Garage and two murals on the top floor of the Seneca Street Garage. Money was found for these in the city budget as graffiti deterrence, which fell within the budget for graffiti removal.
Large murals are work-intensive and often require many hands to complete. Artists employ different individualized strategies to carry out each of their works, ranging from an artist ambitiously completing a work within a few days, completely solo (such as Amir Roti’s mural facing City Hall), to recruiting a couple of friends to help, to projects that span months and involve the community (such as Lachlan Chambliss’s mural honoring Muslim culture in the Downtown Green Street parking garage, which has had over 250 pairs of hands help gradually paint it over fourteen months).
While the murals are beloved by many Ithaca community members, they also experience their share of controversy. The city has in place policies that allow for dissent before a mural is painted and after it is completed. Before a piece is installed, there is an outreach procedure whereby proposals are sent to neighborhood listservs and postcards are distributed to anyone residing within 200 feet to hear comments the immediate community has. This gives a forum for the public to dissent the installation of a piece that either an individual or the community at large disagrees with.
Ultimately, an artist does not have to navigate all these complex threads alone to create their mural. A crucial component of the organization Ithaca Murals is to assist in the coordination and execution of this process to bring art to the Ithaca community. They are responsible, in part, for the proliferation of public murals within the Ithaca community in recent years.
Our Collective Murals
While each mural carries a rich individual history, the murals as a whole create a body of work with cultural, class, and political implications within the broader Ithaca community.
A key aspect of public murals is surviving the test of time. Each mural reflects the politics and culture of the specific moment in history in which it was dreamt and brought to fruition. The completion of each mural involves an extensive network of people to sponsor it in the form of logistical support from City Hall and from the community to bring a mural to life in the first place. But, to outlive the historical moment of its conception, the mural must capture the ongoing support and imagination of its surrounding community. This is especially true when artists themselves are responsible for maintaining their own artworks. For various reasons, an artist may eventually become unable to maintain their work, in which case the burden shifts to the community either to maintain it or allow the work to perish. As murals vie for the community’s limited time and resources, those that people ultimately feel are most reflective of the community’s self-conception triumph, while those that are no longer culturally relevant get cycled out. Through the passage of time, murals reflect a dynamic shared identity. John Pitnam Weber writes in Politics and Practice of Community Public Art: Whose Murals Gets Saved?,“All of the community murals, like any other public art, whether abstract or figurative, assert moral claims to public space, claims concerning the history, identity, and possible future of the surrounding area.”
For a mural to come to life in the first place, community engagement is required and leads to a discourse about what the community’s identity means to them. Additionally, as many of the contemporary works become dated, Ithaca will need to reassess its identity once the artworks can no longer be maintained by the artist duty-free. Will the city assume the responsibility of maintenance? Will the community? Will the artworks be painted over by new ones? If so, is a piece of Ithaca’s history lost? These questions will become relevant to Ithaca’s identity within the next 20 years. But even at the expense of losing history, turnover in Ithaca’s street art creates space for new murals, reflecting the dynamic nature of Ithaca’s identity and its present historical moment.
A Broader Mural Framework
Murals may be misconstrued as “extraneous” to public spaces, as they have no material functionality other than simply being seen, and they require elaborate planning and costly, time-intensive maintenance. However, murals have important moral and ethical implications for constructing collective identity. From their content to their audience to their influence on negotiating cultural and political ideas, murals are both a reflection and source of public discourse. They transform everyday spaces into public forums. Murals tie together collectively-experienced physical spaces and abstract concepts like beauty or violence, cultural concord or discord. In muralizing a space, we actively moralize it, rupturing or perpetuating prior politics, and amplifying the voices of traditionally marginalized identity groups.
Thanks to Joann Cornish, City Hall Director of Planning and Development for her interview and very special thanks to Caleb R Thomas, who took me on a mural walking tour of the city/interview and assisted with developing the content of the piece.