Gary Rickson’s iconic mural Africa Is the Beginning on the YMCA building on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard in Roxbury (where I grew up) has had a long-lasting impression on me. The surrealist-like shadows created by the image of the pyramid, believed by the artist to be a symbol of the first civilization on earth,1 has always intrigued me. It is, in part, Rickson’s powerful imagery that planted the seeds that has led me on a journey in photographing and documenting every extant mural in the city of Boston.
Although Boston is not known for its murals (unlike Philadelphia, for example), it has a rich history of mural making that has been significant in people’s lives, helping to create a “sense of place” for residents in some of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods. The history of Boston’s murals is too rich to detail here, yet it is this richness that contradicts the current mural crisis in the city, evident in the many blank walls in its neighborhoods.
In Boston, as in major cities across the country, community murals developed out of the racial and political turmoil of the 1960s. The events happening at the time prompted a need to organize and overcome the self-destructive behavior that racism created—rioting, gang wars, and drug abuse—all subject matter depicted in murals.2 Between 1968 and 1972, as many as 72 public murals went up around Boston,3 some of them painted by artists of the Black Arts Movement who sought to strengthen their sense of community and empower Bostonians to change local conditions through their socially conscious works of art.4 Because many of these murals were painted on buildings condemned for demolition, they “were intended for instant consumption as symbols of change.”5 Rickson’s Africa Is the Beginning in Roxbury and Robert Hueng’s Untitled mural in Chinatown remain powerful testaments to the public art produced in Boston during the 1960s and 1970s.
A driving force behind Boston’s community murals was Summerthing, an agency out of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (known today as the Mayor’s Mural Crew) founded by Boston artist and writer Adele Seronde during the administration of then-mayor Kevin White. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) also played a major role in the development of community murals in Boston, not only collaborating with Summerthing from 1968 until 1971 but also organizing a symposium in 1974 where muralists from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other American cities gathered in Boston to discuss the state of murals and public art.
The ICA introduced to Boston museum-style control techniques, such as competitions that produced murals of outstanding artistic quality like those by Rickson and Hueng. But as fast as these murals went up, the artistic environment that nurtured them withered after 1974.
When the social and political climate of the 1970s cooled down, federal funding for inner-city mural programs across the country was slashed. Boston was no exception. The murals painted between 1969 and 1974 conveyed the sense of urgency needed for political and social change. After this brief period of politically charged murals, Boston shifted its focus to emphasizing messages of education and highlighting the diverse cultural heritage of its citizens.6 Rather than relying on political imagery to urge action, the more recently created murals (within the last 10 to 15 years) I have seen, focus heavily on abstract designs, portraits of community leaders and ethnic motifs to empower and represent the people who consume these works.
Today, as was done through Summerthing, trained artists working in conjunction with students in the Boston Public Schools system paint the murals. Since murals are a collective, participatory type of art, community residents take pride in their walls. In my time exploring the city, I have seen very few defaced or vandalized murals. There are some exceptions—and those that have been vandalized question a mural’s ability in creating a sense of place and in shaping a community. Stewardship is key in preserving a community’s vision, but whose responsibility is it to maintain a mural long after it has been painted?
Murals generate discussion among the residents, strengthen and beautify communities, and change people’s lives; but rather than looking at murals as Band-Aids to cover up the negative results of urban planning, the City of Boston could benefit from a sustainable mural program that focuses on commissioning new walls and conserving culturally significant ones, all while retaining and promoting its many young artists.
1 Alan W. Barnett, Community Murals: The People’s Art (Philadelphia: The Art’s Alliance Press, 1984), 78
2 Barnett, Community Murals, 78
3 Robert Taylor, “In Four Years, 72 Hub Public Murals” Boston Sunday Globe, August 13, 1972, 55
4 Barnett, Community Murals, 131
5 Taylor, “In Four Years,” 55
6 Barnett, Community Murals, 78
Anulfo Baez is a preservationist and blogger based in Boston. He holds degrees in community planning from the University of New Hampshire and in the history of art and architecture from Boston University. To view other murals in Boston, visit evolvingcritic.tumblr.com.
Top image: Africa Is the Beginning, Gary Rickson