Murals are literally the oldest form of art. They have been around since the beginning of time, serving as a narrative to our lives.
Long before the written word, art has told our story. The cave paintings read like a history book — telling of a time when man first walked the earth. They depict an evolving culture that depended on the land and animals to live.
Murals provide us with valuable insight into our history and our ancestors. They depict relationships, activities, nature and religious traditions of the time they were created, offering us a unique look at our diversity and culture. Murals like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Leonardo’s “Last Supper” have become two of the most iconic images in history.
We know why murals are important to our history, but why are they important now?
Murals provide accessibility to art for all to enjoy. As an artist, one of my favorite parts of the mural process is engaging the community. When painting a mural, I will often stop and talk to folks who are watching about the process and the history of the mural I am working on.
Some years ago, I was working on a mural depicting Luna Park, an amusement park on Charleston’s West Side. Many folks who stopped to watch did not know we used to have an amusement park in Charleston.
Murals can raise a community’s cultural vitality through visual aesthetic. For many, the Gallery 64 Piers are the first thing they see when exiting the interstate to visit the City of Charleston. The Gallery 64 Mural Project started as an idea in 2011. At the time, the City of Charleston did not have an Office of Public Art.
Lori Brannon, from the city’s Planning Department, had seen a mural project in New Orleans underneath I-10. The Strong Neighborhoods Task Force, a committee formed to address community need projects, took this idea and made it a reality.
In 2011, 10 artists were selected to paint history of Charleston-themed murals along the Washington Street underpass of I-64. In the years since, we have completed over 50 additional piers.
Mural creation is also a type of creative placemaking. The National Endowment for the Arts defines creative placemaking as artists, arts organizations and community development practitioners deliberately integrating arts and culture into community revitalization work. This places arts in the same category as land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure and public safety.
Creative placemaking supports local efforts to enhance quality of life and opportunity for residents, increase creative activity and create a distinct sense of place. Elk City, on Charleston’s West Side, is a product of effective creative placemaking. The murals of Elk City continue to add to the character of this growing district.
Additional artwork is currently underway in this area. The first is a Gateway mural that will be painted on the Gardner’s Cleaners building on West Washington Street. It will serve as a welcoming entrance to the West Side. The second project is Artist Alley, an alley that will be comprised of eight artist installations and a walking path.
One mainstay of the Elk City district is Charly Hamilton’s “West Side Wonder Mural.” When the artist was first painting this mural, people stopped to watch and engage. Some of those individuals became part of the mural as Charly would paint them right into the composition. This mural tells hundreds of stories — pulling inspiration from those ingrained in the community.
It has really been remarkable to see the reaction to this piece. On any given day, you can watch folks take their photo in front of the mural. What was once a blank brick wall is now a cultural destination for residents and visitors of Charleston.
Murals are powerful. They give a community a visual voice to its history, culture and vitality.