City as Museum, Art as Interface: Mural Art in Washington D.C.

“Kindred,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC project in NW Washington D.C. Alberto Clarencia, 2017. Photo credit: MuralsDC.


In this project, I identify key ways in which the mural arts in Washington D.C. act as an interface to the city’s deeper identity by providing representation for marginalized groups and by highlighting the city’s history. Because not all viewers have the necessary context to make use of murals as interfaces, I also propose a concept for a mobile app that would provide better access to the information encoded in these murals.

Marilyn Monroe looms large in Washington D.C.

Literally, that is. On the wall of a hair salon in Woodley Park, a larger-than-life painting of the star overlooks commuters turning onto Rock Creek Parkway and a steady stream of tourists searching for a bite to eat.

The mural is one of hundreds in the nation’s capital that have sprung up since the 1970s. A 1994 New York Times article highlighted the importance of the art form in the city: Alex Simpson, then assistant director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, told the paper, “Murals provide a public service and add to the community. You find that the people raise a hue and cry if you try to take them away” (“In Washington” 1994). That mindset continues today, with countless organizations sponsoring murals across the city.

These murals provide artists with an opportunity to make visible the unseen or underrepresented parts of the city: its history, its values, and its identity. Here I address the specific ways in which murals can act as an interface to the city, and ways in which that interface can be improved through technology.

A Different Kind of Artworld

“Art in Bloom,” commissioned by the MuralsDC project on wall donated by Hi Market. Student artists, 2011. Photo: Elvert Barnes, 2013.

The traditional artworld is a network of institutions, actors, and norms that serve to reinforce the existence of Art as a defined category. Artists produce artworks that are evaluated by museums and their curators and are either deemed worthy of being displayed as Art to the largely educated, largely middle-to-upper-class public, or confined to the fringes of the artworld. If worthy, they are sold in galleries to educated, largely middle-to-upper-class consumers who can display them as a show of their social and financial capital. The nodes in this network all interact with each other constantly, reinforcing each others’ roles and affirming the existence of the system itself (Irvine 2018).

Mural art still exists in a network, but the key players are very different. Murals exist in the open air, rather than in ticketed museums; their audience is not just those who seek out Art but anyone who passes by, regardless of education or class. Instead of buyers purchasing artworks to own, you have funders—whether public, private, or somewhere in between—funding art for all. In lieu of museum curators determining what should or should not count as Art, you have a complicated milieu of stakeholders whose opinions are only sometimes considered: the property owner, nearby businesses, neighborhood residents, local governments. Perhaps the only constant is the artist; indeed many muralists, in D.C. and elsewhere, cross back and forth between the two worlds, showing their work in galleries as well as on the walls of the city.

(It is worth noting here that I am speaking of large-scale murals made with the approval of the wall’s owners, not of street art more generally, which is often underground or illegal—not because illegal street art is less meaningful or impactful than its legal sibling, but because it has a world of norms all its own that deserves, and has received elsewhere, separate attention.)

There are countless differences between the two networks, then, but a select few stand out. The first is the role of physical space. Much has been made of the “white cube” of the gallery space, as O’Doherty (1986) describes it: “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall.” It is hard to imagine a space further removed from that of the gallery than the urban street. In O’Doherty’s white cube, artworks’ “ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes,” but a muralist works with the knowledge that no mural will be ever look as pristine as it did on the day of its unveiling (15). She is unable to control the work’s visual, aural, or (alas) olfactory surroundings, or the ways in which others (people, animals, the elements) will interact with it. It is an inversion of the white cube: where galleries contain even the most disruptive art within a heavily mediated space, murals insert a carefully considered image into a chaotic one. Irvine (2012) describes it as a “turn[ing] inside out: what was once banished from the walls of the art institutions (schools, museums, galleries) is reflected back on the walls of the city. Street art is now the mural art of the extramuros, outside the institutional walls” (7).

Rather than providing a refuge from the outside world, as museums often aim to do, mural art inserts itself into everyday life. This ties into issues of access as well: Once freed from the constraints of opening hours and admission fees, artworks can reach a much larger audience. In the 1994 article, the New York Times interviewed longtime D.C. muralist G. Byron Peck. “Although he also shows his paintings in galleries, Mr. Peck prefers murals. ‘With a gallery opening, you’re there and you have this flashpoint for one night for a one-month duration,’ he said. ‘But this gives you almost daily exposure to a lot of people who don’t have the chance or the desire to go to a gallery’” (“In Washington”).

Posing in front of a wall near Union Market in NE D.C., a popular photo backdrop. The mural was created as part of the one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Photo credit: Jordan Moeny, 2016.

Another inversion of the artworld arises with regard to the capital—both economic and social—of art. Traditional artworks provide economic capital, in ideal circumstances, to their creators, and in this respect they are similar to murals. Muralists are (also in ideal circumstances) paid directly for their work, whether by the property owner whose wall they are adorning, by a nonprofit, by a local government, or by some other sponsor. The economic exchange is more direct than that in the traditional artworld, where it must be mediated by a dealer lest the artist seem to have “sold out,” but it is similar nonetheless. Social capital, however, is another matter. Traditional artworks lend social capital to those through whose hands they have passed: dealers, museums, buyers (Bourdieu 1993). The same is not necessarily true for murals. Many do not clearly “belong” to a particular business or person, and most are not clearly marked with the name of their funder. Instead, they provide capital to those who interact with them. They provide a level of status—often proportional to how new and trendy the mural is—to those who post Instagram selfies in front of them, and even moreso to those who live nearby. Murals are a form of art in which capital is distributed amongst the community, not kept to the individual.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the traditional and mural artworlds, however, is the role of the institution. Institutions exist in each system: museums and art schools in the one, governments and other funders in the other. Both act as gatekeepers for their networks: city-sponsored mural projects are often a major funder of large-scale murals, and receiving their funding requires creating something that can be approved of by politicians and bureaucrats. Even when not publically funded, murals with any institutional sponsor will go through some sort of approval process just as a piece in a museum might.

The key difference is that in the mural artworld, institutional control is far from complete. An artist can’t simply walk into the Louvre and hang up her painting, but with enough paint, a laddder, and someone willing to donate their wall, anyone can create a mural. From the sidewalk, it’s impossible to know which mural was financed by the city and which was created by a business owner with a love of color and an artistic friend. The city removes barriers between that which is authorized and that which is not, placing all murals on the same playing field.

Though street art more generally is not the focus here, it is worth mentioning that murals can seem like a sanitized version of underground street art—not defined by their quality or their messages, but by whether or not the artist asked to use the space first. Approving street art in advance removes the aspect of rebellion and the symbolic role of graffiti as an act of protest. In a city like D.C. in particular, it can come across as a gentrified version of “real” street art, like the luxury condos that bear the names of black artists and local pioneers while pricing out the people of color who made the neighborhood what it was.

But the analogy isn’t perfect. Where gentrification pushes out thriving communities, most murals aren’t hiding something like 5Pointz, a collage of artistically varied, aesthetically interesting artwork. Oftentimes, murals turn a purely blank wall into something more interesting. Other times, they take the place of a cycle of destruction and reconstruction wherein walls are graffitied, repainted, and graffitied again, ad infinitum until the wall is a patchwork of new paint on top of old. This cycle leads only to frustration among the property owner, the graffiti artist, and the community; murals offer a chance to break that cycle and put something more productive in place.

“Frederick Douglass,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC on wall donated by Bread for the City. Aniekan Udofia, 2011. Photo credit: MuralsDC, 2011.

Painting the Federal City

As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. has a reputation for being stuffy, a city of bureaucrats in gray suits and politicians in black cars. The sites most associated with the city are, generally speaking, a collection of white marble neoclassical buildings and white marble memorials to long-dead white men.

Yet beneath the surface lives a thriving community that is far removed from the “federal city”: one that, like any other city, is made up not just of lawyers and office workers but of artists, cashiers, activists, baristas, actors, bus drivers, teachers, and more. According to the D.C. city government, 1.57% of area residents are “professional artists and creatives,” a percentage three times that of New York City (D.C. Cultural Plan 2018, 58). This isn’t a new phenomenon; in the early part of the 20th century, Washington D.C. was a hotspot of culture—particularly black culture—and played host to figures like Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes before they made their names in New York (Kovacs 2005). D.C. has always had an identity beyond its face as the nation’s capital and continues to do so today, but it’s not one that is easily seen in the tourist attractions. In an essay on the changing face of his hometown, Uzodinma Iweala (2016) writes, “[D.C.] is a city fractured by its infatuation with official remembrance (as seen in its monuments and museums), and its seeming indifference to the personal memories of the permanent residents whose lives have truly shaped it.”

Public murals offer one possible interface to those memories. The city recognizes this: The draft of the first-ever D.C. cultural plan suggests a strategy of “recogniz[ing] the role that murals can play in providing platforms for artistic entrepreneurship and expression of community heritage, enlivening space and creating opportunities for audience dialogue” and recommends strengthening mural-creation programs (74). Even in their current state, such programs are doing fairly well; MuralsDC, a project of the D.C. Department of Public Works, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017 and has to date produced 75 murals across the city (DC DPW 2018). The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities funds additional murals outside of MuralsDC, and the nonprofit and private sectors more than keep pace. Perry Frank, who catalogs D.C.’s murals on a site funded in part by DCCAH, estimated in 2016 that there were around 600 murals across the city (Bahrampour 2016).

With that many murals, and more popping up regularly, it’s no surprise that there’s a fair amount of variety. Plenty are largely decorative, featuring attractive patterns rather than specific images. But others offer a link to different aspects of the community—particularly ones that may not be obvious to tourists or newcomers.

Carrying the Torch: Representing D.C.’s Black Community

“The Torch,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC on wall donated by Ben’s Chili Bowl. Aniekan Udofia with Mia Duval, 2017. Photo credit: MuralsDC, 2017.

Washington D.C.’s history is one of diversity. The city’s African-American population peaked at 71 percent in 1970, a high-water mark in half a century of a black majority in “Chocolate City.” That majority slipped away only in 2011, and black residents remain the largest racial group (Tavernise 2011). The D.C. region is home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa (Schwartz 2016), and the second-largest Salvadoran population in the U.S., after Los Angeles (Terrazas 2010).

Yet as the 21st century moves forward, the city is growing whiter. While the black population is growing, the white population is doing so as well, and at a faster pace (Hudson 2017). Even though the overall population is today about 49 percent black, among native Washingtonians that number jumps to 80 percent. In a recent article about the subject, WAMU’s Ally Schweitzer (2017) points out that this too ties into the federal/local divide:

“No one is from D.C.” is one of those things you hear in “official” Washington—land of Congress, the White House and K Street. Go to a happy hour in official Washington and you’ll meet people from everywhere except D.C. But in hometown D.C.—where people have lived, learned and raised families for generations, usually beyond the bubble of politics—it’s a given that your next door neighbor grew up here and maybe even went to high school with you. In hometown D.C., people don’t utter such ridiculous things as, “No one is from D.C.”

Even in neighborhoods like U Street—once known as Black Broadway—that have become increasingly expensive and increasingly white, murals offer a reminder of the city’s roots. One of the city’s most famous walls is that of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local institution that has been called “a symbol of the city’s resilience,” having survived six decades in a neighborhood once devastated by riots and neglect. A previous mural featured Bill Cosby, among others; though the owners claim that the decision wasn’t based on charges of sexual assault against Cosby, they decided in 2017 to give the mural a complete overhaul. Both the new mural and the original were sponsored by MuralsDC and painted by local artist Aniekan Udofia (Lefrak 2017).

The new version features 16 individuals, living and dead, all black and many connected to the city. At one end, Barack and Michelle Obama grin at passers-by and Harriet Tubman provides the mural’s title (“The Torch”). Toward the other end, D.C.’s non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes stands in front of the skyline, a D.C. flag streaming over her shoulders like a superhero’s cape as she looks off into the distance. Featuring national celebrities like Prince and a young Muhammad Ali alongside local ones like longtime news anchor Jim Vance, the mural is an unapologetic reminder of D.C.’s status as a capital of black culture (Lefrak 2017).

“Work It, Gurl”: Queering the City Landscape

Side of Whitman-Walker Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. Painted by No Kings Collective, 2017. Photo credit: Ted Eytan, 2017.

Just down 14th Street NW is a tribute to another side of D.C., past and present. The city boasts a larger LGBT population, proportionally speaking, than any state in the country (8.6 percent in 2015-16) and a long and storied history of queer activity and activism (Cooper 2017). In summer 2017, queer-friendly clinic Whitman-Walker decided to mark the start of a major redevelopment at their Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center with a new paint job that took over not just all exterior walls but the parking lot adjacent to the building. With the phrase “Work it, gurl” splashed over a background inspired by the pink-and-blue trans flag, the highly Instagrammable mural is an ode to the trans and gender-nonconforming community that Whitman-Walker has served for decades. Elsewhere, a black-and-gray pattern frames“members of the Whitman-Walker family,” whose portraits fill the building’s streetside windows (Jackson 2017). Though many of the facility’s patients are still stigmatized—particularly those who are HIV-positive, a group Whitman-Walker works with frequently—the display serves to humanize them and remind the clinic’s neighbors of the large role the queer community plays in the city.

Work on the redevelopment started in October 2017. Each day on my way to work, I walk past the Whitman-Walker building, now sitting at the edge of a massive construction site. Though the historic facades are staying put, the interiors have been gutted to make way for a 155,000 square foot mixed-use building that will include an expanded facility and office space for the organization (Chibbaro 2017). In a city full of construction, where cranes and scaffolding are a daily sight for most people, this isn’t unusual. What is unusual is that the murals are still there, the parking lot boldly reminding me to work it, gurl. A large development of that type has the potential to be an eyesore for the community and an ugly reminder of how fast the city is changing. Instead, the murals provide a pop of color and cheer that distracts from much of the construction. From behind the construction fencing, the faces of Whitman-Walker watch over 14th Street, as if to say, “We’re still here, and we’ll be here when this is all over.”

Building History: An Interface to the Past

“28 Blocks,” mural commissioned by D.C. Department of General Services. Gavin Baker, 2017. Photo credit: Amaury Laporte, 2017.

On the side of an unused building in Northeast D.C., another mural added this summer draws attention from pedestrians, cyclists, and visitors passing by on the train from New York. From afar, the grayscale mural seems to focus on the Lincoln Memorial, but as viewers get closer they see that the true subjects of “28 Blocks” are the larger-than-life figures of the men who built D.C.’s most popular tourist attraction. Black workers—only 50 years removed from the end of slavery—quarry and transport the 28 marble blocks that make up the statue of Lincoln, while Italian immigrants carve those same blocks into the President’s likeness (Stein 2017).

For artist Gavin Baker and the D.C. Department of General Services, which commissioned the mural, the image represents all of the unsung work that has gone into creating not just D.C., but the United States. Baker says that it is intended to highlight “The hands and the struggles, the hopes and the dreams that went into building this country, and all of the immigrants and slaves and sons and grandsons of people who were brought to this country in chains and are now free men and women” (Trull 2017)

“28 Blocks” shows how murals can offer an interface to the city’s history. The stately marble memorials on the National Mall were created to seem timeless and seamless; for the casual viewer, the Lincoln Memorial may as well have emerged from the earth fully-formed. Standing next to the 19-foot statue, it is hard to imagine that it was created by ordinary men. The mural provides a dose of reality, reminding viewers of the work that went into the city around them. So far, it seems to be working: “It’s beautiful,” one viewer told the Washington Post. “It’s very creative. Now I’m thinking I need to go back and look up all this history” (Trull 2017).

Developing the Cultural Encyclopedia Through Technology

Mural of Marvin Gaye in NW Washington D.C.. Aniekan Udofia, 2014. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, 2016.

Understanding art, whether in a museum or on the street, requires drawing upon a cultural encyclopedia of knowledge (Irvine 2016). Without the proper context, a viewer may not realize that the soulfoul singer on a wall in Shaw is Marvin Gaye, let alone that Gaye was a native Washingtonian. Murals can be a tool to teach viewers about the long and nuanced history of the city, but their lessons often go unnoticed.

While a museum can often provide that context through wall labels and curatorial statements, that option isn’t always present for murals, where small signs may be missed or may wear rapidly in the elements. Several alternatives exist already: DC Murals, Perry Frank’s website, offers an partial catalog of local murals, and one organization offers occasional tours of murals in the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods. Both, however, require citygoers to seek them out, when one of the great benefits of the mural as an art form is that, unlike museums and galleries, it is accessible to all people whether or not they make a point to track it down.

A potential opportunity is a mobile-friendly website or app that would make information about murals more quickly and easily accessible to those who pass by. To be succesful, such an app would need to involve several components:

1. Location, Location, Location

A map showing local murals is a good start, but with modern GPS technology, an app could easily notify users if they are within a few blocks of a mural. Settings could allow users to select their own level of interaction by choosing whether or not they want to receive such notifications, and if so how often. Constantly? Only on the weekends or after work? Only on the first time they pass a specific mural? Giving users the ability to adjust the number of notifications they receive could keep more casual users from deleting the app in frustration, while providing hardcore mural-hunters with the information they’re seeking.

This also at least partially solves one problem of street art: that without titles, not all are easily identified. Without the help of a label, viewers might not catch the artist’s name, or might not remember later which business the wall belonged to. A map with a location function would allow users to pull out their phones and quickly see which mural is closest to them, keeping them from having to try to look up more information by Googling “DC mural flowers photo.”

2. Entries in the Cultural Encyclopedia

While Perry’s website offers some information on the works listed there, the details are often sparse. Other murals are featured on their artists’ or funders’ websites or in local media, but the information is scattered and requires more research than a casual commuter might be willing or able to conduct. A well-designed app could consolidate such information, presenting it in one place. One affordance of an app is that images can also be interactive; users could tap various points to identify, for example, who each musician in Shaw’s “DC Jazz Heroes” mural is.

3. Public Input, Private Research

With hundreds of murals across the city, the key to the success of such an app would be public feedback. Users would be able to submit suggestions for murals to be added, ask questions about murals already in the app, and submit more information about a murals whose entry is still lacking.

However, public feedback cannot be the only source of information, and this is where my proposed app diverges from previous attempts. In 2010, the ArtAround app was launched in D.C. to identify local artistic sites—murals along with monuments, statues, galleries, and more—but while the project expanded to other cities, it ultimately fell short of its goals (Sollinger 2013). Crucially, it relied too heavily on the community to generate its content. While crowdsourced projects can be successful, new additions often become less and less frequent, which in turn discourages new users. The most recent D.C. murals on the app were created in 2015, and before that in 2013. Apps that rely solely on crowdsourcing are also at risk of being incomplete to the point of irrelevance. Even well-known murals like the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural are missing from ArtAround’s map, and the descriptions are generally no more than a few sentences, if that.

This is where private research comes into play. A researcher tied to the app could consolidate information from multiple sources to provide thorough descriptions of murals’ subjects, artists, and histories. Given sufficient time and funding, the app could even become a platform for unique content like interviews with muralists, property owners, and community historians.

Murals as a Rallying Cry for Identity

Mural of Marilyn Monroe on the wall of Salon Roi in Woodley Park, Washington D.C. John Bailey, 1979 (refreshed 2001). Photo credit: Adam Fagen, 2012.

Irvine (2012) writes on street art that “The city location is an inseparable substrate for the work, and street art is explicitly an engagement with a city, often a specific neighborhood” (4). This is clear in Washington D.C.’s murals, where the images reflect the history and culture of the city on whose walls they are painted.

The painting of Marilyn Monroe in Woodley Park is one of the murals that doesn’t have a clear connection to the city’s history. The salon’s owner, Roi Barnard, was a fan of Monroe’s and had a friend paint the mural to brighten up the “bleak” building for his 40th birthday in 1979 (“In Washington”). Since then, the mural has become something of a local landmark. In 2001, neighborhood businesses contributed funds to restore the fading mural and illuminate it after dark (PoPVille 2014).

Like most of D.C.’s murals, it’s hard to find much information about the painting—there’s certainly no consolidated source for it. It takes some digging to discover that unlike other stars who grace the city’s walls, Monroe never lived in Washington D.C. But her image has come to represent a side of the city that isn’t reflected in the monuments and memorials: a vibrant city with a creative identity, where history is important but symbolism isn’t always the point, and where anyone with a wall and some paint can add their mark to the city’s landscape.

Works Cited