Diamonds in the Rough: Art Murals in an Urban Community
by Leland Goodrich | published Apr. 11th, 2020
The art murals that dot much of downtown Rochester are a sight to see for anyone new to town, yet remain unbeknownst to many of the city’s bustling denizens. They project feelings of joy, passion and togetherness on urban landscapes. The murals brighten city spaces that would otherwise go unnoticed.
While art murals themselves are not unique to Rochester, the way the city has used art to connect communities is something that is truly remarkable given today’s turbulent world.
Outside of Rochester, art murals in urban centers can be found all throughout the U.S., from the towering buildings of New York City to the rolling hills of Los Angeles.
However, art murals on city buildings were not always as widely accepted as they are today in places such as Rochester. To fully understand the prominence of city art murals in modern art appreciation, it is necessary to first go back in time and see where art murals trace their roots.
From Vandalism to Modern Art
“The history of art murals is really based around graffiti art, except graffiti art is illegal and art murals are completely legal.”
“The history of art murals is really based around graffiti art, except graffiti art is illegal and art murals are completely legal,” said Narionna Nunez, a recreation assistant for the city of Rochester’s Roc Paint Division.
According to Nunez, the beginnings of art murals in urban areas go back to the late 1970s, when graffiti art was just starting to take off in the U.S.
Graffiti artists in this time period, most prominently in New York City, used the abundance of free canvas space on the city’s subways, alleyways and vehicles to showcase their talent through unsanctioned and illegal works of art.
While doubtlessly a showcase of artistic talent, the graffiti movement was also a way for the day’s youth to voice their grievances with a governmental system that they viewed as unsympathetic and oppressive.
This illegal form of artwork, at first, was largely viewed negatively by both the public at large and the cities whose infrastructure sported the fruits of the artistic labor. This was primarily due to the art violating basic property rights.
Eventually, as Nunez pointed out, vandalism laws quickly began to regulate and snuff out many of the works of art that were beginning to fill the urban landscapes of American cities.
As time progressed, many people, especially those in the art world, began to better appreciate the illicit works that had come to be synonymous with city life and as cultural representations of urban Americana.
Yet, the graffiti art that had come to define cities nationwide was still illegal, and the only way new art could be generated was in the shadows, outside the boundaries of law.
Wanting to highlight the works of talented urban artists but needing to do so in a legal and proper way, cities around the U.S. began to set up sanctioned programs that would allow graffiti artists to use city-owned property as their canvas.
The graffiti movement of the late 1970s would soon evolve from acts of illegal counterculture expression into urban art murals that have come to be widely desired and supported. Many metropolitan communities around the nation, such as Rochester, began to embrace the art that had already been such an important part of city life.
“Eventually that [art murals] was something that people would like to see, so it developed more as a program … now we see murals more often in a lot of cities,” Nunez said.
With their second act in American culture solidified, today’s urban art muralists seek to do more than simply pay homage to the graffiti art that gave way to the picturesque works that capture the attention of city-goers.
In Rochester, these works of art demand to be a cornerstone of the city’s life and as a device that connects the entire community.
The Heart of a City
Roc Paint Division, an art mural organization in Rochester, connects youth with local artists to help develop and paint the art murals which beautify many of the structures located within the area.
“We go to the members of the community, sometimes a committee, and we present our designs,” explained Francheska Diaz, another recreation assistant with Roc Paint Division.
Typically, an experienced artist plans out designs that are either personally inspired or reflect something significant within the community.
After the planning is done, the artist has youth, volunteers and members from Roc Paint assist in painting the art murals.
“It’s pretty collaborative between we who create the murals and the people who are involved with whatever space we plan on putting the art on,” Diaz said.
Founded in late 2015, Roc Paint has commissioned numerous art murals all over the city with the help of the community, ensuring that the spirit of public art murals continue as an important part of life in the city.
The art murals in Rochester draw onlookers from all over the state, and even the country. They have their own tours that map out various mural locations. It has become a popular attraction for many visitors to the area in recent years.
"Explore the whole city, spend a day, look at all of the art and see all of what Rochester has to offer."
In addition to the popularization of urban art murals, the Roc Paint Division itself has been constantly growing over the past few years.
“Right now, we have the biggest group of Roc Paint Division that we have ever had. I believe that this is something that will continue, allowing more kids to come and embrace themselves as artists,” said Nunez.
For the near future, art murals in Rochester are secured by the dedicated members of the community and the artists who facilitate their creation.
Reflections of a Community
Art murals in urban centers have greatly evolved from the illegal graffiti art that spawned a new movement in the modern art scene.
Now serving a different role in community relations, murals unite its members over colorful depictions rather than dividing citizens over questions of legality.
Even though the murals of Rochester, among other cities, are now facilitated and encouraged by the local governments, the purpose behind urban art has not changed much from its predecessor.
The art murals of today, like the graffiti art of old, serve to reflect a city’s character. Simultaneously, inspiring all those who paint, imagine and simply enjoy the view.
In the words of Diaz, “explore the whole city, spend a day, look at all of the art and see all of what Rochester has to offer.”