Murals occupy a strange in-between space in the arts. They add creative beauty to our lives, but unlike sculptures, drawings, or other types of painting, they are stuck to one place and cannot be moved.
This does not mean that murals are permanent. Murals can be, and often are, painted over. In the case of historic, protected mural artworks, “whitewashing” is a tragedy. But for modern murals, like those that are created for the annual Montreal MURAL Festival, impermanence is part of the plan. Even the amazing, popular murals are sometimes painted over after a few years to allow space for new creative works.
Contemporary muralists are aware of their artworks’ temporary nature, and many of us embrace that impermanent quality. We want people to enjoy our murals for as long as it makes sense to do so, but we understand that eventually, it may come time to respectfully say goodbye.
I like to practice what I preach. I always encourage Mural Envy clients to call me back if ever they need a new look on their walls. Some have taken me up on that, and I have painted over my own murals to make way for something new. For example, I recently painted over the Kids Playroom With Trees that I created nine years ago for a 5-year-old, who now as a teenager, wanted a more sophisticated space. The family was renovating their upstairs, and their daughter had asked for a sky-blue and navy room with an ombre fade. The change was drastic, but the new look turned out beautifully, and seeing a 14-year-old happy with her new room was a reward in itself.
Let me pause for a moment here and distinguish between a privately commissioned mural and community-funded public art. There have been plenty of news stories about public murals being painted over without the proper permissions, which have then resulted in lawsuits brought on by preservation groups and/or the artists themselves. Most of the time, these situations boil down to a lack of communication and insufficient agreements up-front. As murals become more and more popular for their power to revitalize communities around the world, artists and arts organizations are recognizing the need to clearly state the preservation expectations ahead of time, using standard contractual processes. These pre-agreed-upon terms usually put a time limit on the property owner’s responsibility for the mural. They agree to protect the mural for a limited number of years, and the artist agrees to the possibility that the mural may be painted over after the allotted time. Only when the contract is breached is there grounds for complaint.
For property owners, this acceptance of impermanence should foster a sense of freedom from risk. If you commission a mural for the side of your building, and ten years from now your marketing strategy changes, your contract states that you are free to paint over the old mural with a new one. Likewise, if you are a homeowner who wants a really cool mural for your 4-year-old’s bedroom, you should not feel worried about having to paint over that mural when the child turns 14 and wants something completely different on the walls.
When I talk with people about how perfect a mural is for their space, I am often met with concern. What if they don’t like it? What if they change their minds later? As understandable as these fears are, they stand in the way of good art being made. Changing perceptions about the permanence of mural art is an important step toward improving our personal and communal spaces with beautiful and exciting murals.