Heartspace Art

A Short Sweet Mural History

by | Feb 18, 2021

What is a mural?

A mural is a piece of art that is painted on walls. It can be on the inside of buildings or outside for public display. They are large and take artistic expertise to paint them. The artwork incorporates the architecture of the building to bring out the painting and the building as one. Murals are not only on walls; they can also be on ceilings and floors.

Brief history of murals

Murals date back to 30,000 BC from the earliest paintings in the Chauvet cave France. The largest numbers of paintings are from Egyptian tombs in 3150BC, Pompeii in 100BC-AD79 and Minoan places 1700-1600BC. The whole period within which ancient paintings are known as the Upper Paleolithic times.


Ancient Egyptian mural

In the Middle Ages, dry plaster is how paintings were created. When the technique of painting murals on wet plaster took root in Italy, circa 1300, wall painting quality grew. It is the age where mural painting began to take shape and become modern. Among the famous murals produced during the Renaissance period are Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” “The Last Judgment” and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Because artists were often supported by rich, politically-powerful patrons, such as the Medicis, and/or commissioned by the Catholic Church itself, many of the classical works of the Renaissance period reflect Christian themes.

“The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

The best-known style of mural painting is Fresco, but there are many methods and techniques as shown by the Mexican muralism art movement that took significant root in modern times. The pioneers of this movement include Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco. In the 20th century, the Mexican mural movement associated with Diego Rivera brought a new level of sophistication to the murals, drawing influences from Cubism and Post-Impressionism, as well as incorporating social and political commentary-which had often been suppressed in Europe. Rivera helped to popularize murals throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States. His works began to reflect a radical leftist political consciousness as well as traditional Aztek influences. 

“Man, Controller of the Universe” by Diego Rivera

In the 60’s came the African American community mural movement. The main inspiration for this movement was the Civil Rights liberation struggles and the focus on cultural and artistic aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement and Black Panther Minister of Culture and artist Emory Douglas. The community mural movement began with the “Wall of Respect” in Chicago, which was revolutionary in not just its depiction of black icons, but also in the sense that the community shared collective ownership of the work. The “Wall of Respect” led to many similar Walls in Chicago, many painted by William Walker.  Gentrification was on the rise and a surge of community-oriented murals could be found in many major American cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and St. Louis. 


“Wall of Respect” by Willam Walker and various other community members in Chicago that honors more than 50 African-American heroes.

The community mural movement was concurrent with what has been called by non-practitioners “the modern graffiti movement” (practitioners often don’t call themselves graffiti artists, preferring the terms “style writers” or “aerosol artists”), which began in Philadelphia and New York, and utilized the medium of spray paint, as well as previously uncommon surfaces: subway cars, handball courts, freeway underpasses. The movement’s origins are in guerilla-style unpermitted walls and initially evolved around tags identifying the artists, such as Coco 144 or Lee 163d, but eventually evolved into the addition of elaborate calligraphic scripts, multicolored outlines and backgrounds. Styles continually evolved and the artists formed crews both to protect and distinguish themselves from other crews, and also to help navigate an environment with very territorial street gangs.

Graffiti Art

The first graffiti art exhibition, in 1972, was reviewed in the New York Times which led to further exhibitions and interest from art collectors and the next new trend. In 1980, as hip-hop expanded from a NY subculture to a global movement, it took aerosol artists with it. By 1990, there was much interconnectivity and overlapping between community mural, street art, and graffiti art subcultures. 

Most people need entry points to become comfortable with things that are new; and for millions of people, Banksy is the entry point they needed, in not only seeing art in a new way, but accepting art as a part of culture and daily life. Like many artists before him, such as Andy Warhol, Banksy nearly single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people that probably never appreciated art. He is not only a primary figure in the street/urban art movement, but to contemporary art in general.


“Rage, The Flower Thrower” by Banksy

Arguably the most controversial street artist in the world, Englishman Banksy has developed an entire art subculture devoted to his works. It has been said change takes a few years to come into its own. With the street art movement, we see that exactly to be the case. With teenagers finding ways to express themselves through vandalism, many took to the streets with cans of spray paint. Specifically, a group of artists called DryBreadZ crew, or DBZ, left their mark on many public spaces. This expression brought about attention from authorities, causing the members’ nights of creation to end in fleeing from their work at the sound of sirens. Current member Banksy, eighteen at the time, was stuck hiding behind a garbage truck one night. Left to memorize the stencil lettering on the side of the vehicle while he waited in silence for the flashing red and blue lights to retreat, it was then he discovered a faster way to paint. Intricate stencils to minimize time and overlap color marked his new graffiti type. The significance of this change to the street art scene has polarized many people, notoriously dubbed “The Banksy Effect.” The infamous Banksy’s art provokes serious debate on significant issues such as war, refugees, social media and politics. His work inspires viewers and adds some unique style to the streets, giving a new meaning to graffiti and street art.

Another iconic artists that is part of the Street Art Movement is Shepard Fairey. He is an American muralist and graphic artist perhaps best known for his 2008 “Hope” poster depicting then U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama in red, white and blue. His work combines street-art activism with an entrepreneurial spirit. Fairey also created the “André the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign, featuring a stylized image of the wrestler André the Giant. This project  was the foundation for his seminal Obey series, which helped to push him into the public spotlight. Fairey blurs the boundary between traditional and commercial art through type and image, communicating his brand of social critique via prints, murals, stickers, and posters in public spaces. “Art is not always meant to be decorative or soothing, in fact, it can create uncomfortable conversations and stimulate uncomfortable emotions,” he stated. His works are included in the collections of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

“Hope” by Shepard Fairey

The mural movement has become a global one, well-represented in its longtime center like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis and the San Francisco Bay area. It is also commonly found in Yokohoma, Tokyo, Montreal, Halifax, London, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo. Writing on the walls is one of humankind’s earliest cultural traditions, and it shows no signs of stopping as we move into the future. 


Written By: Melanie Davis

Content credits: muralforum.comcrpbayarea.orgmedium.comartnet.com.