Droppin’ Knowledge: Healing Cities One Mural at a Time

By - Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Division of Violence Prevention, in 2010, 4,828 young people ages 10 to 24 were victims of homicide – an average of 13 each day. 86% of the victims were male and 82.8% of all young victims were killed with a firearm.

This fact was apparent to Dr. Ian Wilson, a radiologist based in Rochester, NY and founder of WALL\THERAPY, a community-level intervention using mural art to inspire city residents to look beyond the violence and chaos that had become wide spread in Rochester. Wilson saw the project as an opportunity  to communicate a message to the at-risk youth population – believe in a brighter future amidst the prevalence of youth violence and homicide on the city streets. 

In 2011, the first project, Visual Intervention, became the vehicle for the message, “Believe.”

Believe Mural (Jul 7, 2011 – Jul 11, 2011). Photo by WALL\THERAPY. TASTE (FUA), Mak1one, Kurt Ketchum, ZONER (FUA), SNO (FUA), OZ (FUA), Shawn Dunwoody, Freddy Sam

Growing up in East New York in the 1980’s, Wilson, whose father was an artist, was surrounded by graffiti and art. In fact, his brother is a writer and he experimented with graffiti himself growing up. Now, as a successful professional, he has founded WALL\THERAPY as a way to give back to his community. In his eyes the best way to get this message of resiliency to the youth population is through mural art.

WALL\THERAPY seems to have successfully achieved that. Co-Curator and Lead Organizer, Erich S. Lehman cites several tangible outcomes from the project, including increased community investment and involvement, provision of art education to the youth, and the breaking down of structural and perceived barriers in the different communities.

Artist Alice Mizrachi is a perfect example. One of the artist-therapists in the 2014 Cycle, Mizrachi worked with a group of students over the course of the weekend, guiding them to a rich, rewarding experience that they are still talking to their teachers about the experience. They’ve become more aware of their own neighborhoods at a young age, and have started to ask about doing more of this (murals) in their neighborhoods.

Mizrachi shares her thoughts on what she’s learned as an artist about working in underserved communities:

WALL/THERAPY in Rochester is a great example of how artists and community are supported and nurtured in a way that makes us thrive. With Ian Wilson’s vision, The WALL/THERAPY team and support from the community, this mural project should be used as a template for others.

The WALL/THERAPY team realizes that the artists bring the value so they make sure to connect artists to neighborhoods they would best fit. Scattering the murals throughout Rochester brings a freshness to each piece and is a thoughtful approach since both the artists and community feels engaged and supported. The organization and fundraising for this project is thorough and everyone feels welcomed.

Every community is an extension of my own community and I am interested in conversations people have to share with me in every neighborhood I enter. Art is universal and all people need art and expression whether marginalized or not.

Learn more about WALL\THERAPY’s sister initiative, IMPACT (Improving Access to Care by Teleradiology). IMPACT seeks to provide easier access to better care in underdeveloped and underserved regions through cloud-based x-ray services and a network of volunteer radiologists supporting IMPACT sites. In addition to its medical component and using best practices learned through WALL\THERAPY, IMPACT also brings mural art to developing communities, bringing much-needed healing to the body and soul of the community.

Click here for more information about the upcoming panel discussion, The Impact of Urban Art in Inner City Environments. And to support WALL\THERAPY’s work, click here for their Indiegogo campaign. 

Other communities with similar mural projects thrive and experience numerous lasting benefits. Read this article about the positive lasting effects of murals in other states across the U.S. by a California-based architect and urban planning B-Corporation (corporations required by law to create a material positive impact on society and the environment).

In Astoria, Queens in New York City, Ad Hoc Art (AHA), a NYC-based social think-tank, founded Welling Court Mural Project in 2009 to beautify and revive the area. AHA believes in using art, collaboration and community to creatively address societal challenges as well as foster much needed social change.

The benefits are apparent. In analyzing NYPD data gathered from the 114th Precinct in 2009 and 2014, there is a noticeable 6.6% decrease in the crime rate, particularly in the number of robberies, which decreased by 16.3% in the same period. Slow yet steady progress.

Recently featured in Open House New York, a non-profit cultural organization promoting awareness and appreciation of New York’s architecture, design and cultural heritage through year-round, educational programs, the mural project has received a lot of high praises.

This grassroots initiative has received remarkable appreciation as it brings art from around the world directly to the heart of this eclectic neighborhood. Growing more vibrant with each added participant, the project has served as a model for both local and international organizations wishing to improve the quality of life and beauty in their surroundings through individual and collaborative means. It exemplifies how when one person puts an idea into action, that desire and willingness to make a difference can generate outcomes far beyond those initially imagined and help manifest the vibrant and sustainable world we and our children deserve. 

Believe in Yourself. (2014). Photo by venusinorbit. Alice Mizrachi with local youth at Welling Court Mural Project.

Queens-born and bred Mizrachi, a resident in the area, also participates in the event and has been one of the featured artists since the beginning. She speaks about the positive impact murals bring to the community and the underlying issue of gentrification:

Overall, I think murals make people feel good and have a positive impact. Some mural projects that pop up in neighborhoods cause rents to rise due to property value increase. LIC and Astoria are both bustling art havens today that have become quite pricey, similar to Bushwick and Williamsburg we see this trend happening because of the “cool” factor art brings to the neighborhood. As a mural organizer, this can be tough because the intention to bring more art to public space is great. It is a tricky issue to navigate and requires a very thoughtful approach. I have been a witness to it happening with 5 Pointz, Bushwick and even Wynwood in Miami. I love to paint everywhere but I have become more interested in creating art that has a long term positive impact on its residents. 

Wayne Rada, the founder of the L.I.S.A. (Little Italy Street Art Program) Project, in Downtown Manhattan, also recognizes the gentrifying effect of murals and has worked to create a balance between preserving the long-standing artistic legacy in the Downtown area and ushering in the new.

Initially formed to promote Caroline Hirsch’s New York Comedy Festival, the Project evolved into a premiere public arts program reaching into SoHo, the Lower Eastside, the East Village, Chinatown and Chelsea. The Project encourages New Yorkers, art fans and tourists alike to visit or Little Italy and Lower Manhattan to view and photograph the art work. 

Audrey Hepburn. (2013). Photo by venusinorbit. Mural by Tristan Eaton at the L.I.S.A. Project.

According to Rada, the project, which began in 2012, has changed the landscape, with local artists and art aficionados returning to explore the area and patronize the local establishments. The influx of new consumers has revitalized the area, a welcome reprieve after the decrease in visitor traffic following Hurricane Sandy. Local merchants are especially thrilled and have been avid supporters of the project. According to Rada, 9 out of 10 murals in Little Italy are funded by the local merchants in the neighborhood.

To resurrect the avant-garde, edgy and artistic character of Downtown, Rada has partnered with local legislators, agencies and companies to produce the first-ever mural festival to Downtown Manhattan. The LoMan Arts Fest, which will be held on August 5th – 9th 2015, will combine music, art and comedy – things that gave Downtown its cool and artsy vibe.

To find out more about LoMan Arts Fest, go on their Facebook page. For volunteer opportunities, contact the Project by going on their website and scrolling down to their contact form.

Across the East River from Downtown Manhattan, lies Bushwick, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Bushwick Collective, an outdoor street art gallery featuring art by local and international artists curated by Bushwick’s own, Joe Ficalora, has helped transform the once dingy, dirty and crime-infested area.

Driven by a desire to beautify the neighborhood after his mother’s passing, Ficalora began contacting artists he liked, inviting them to paint in the neighborhood. Building owners donated their walls and the artists donated their time and own supplies. As part of this year’s mural festival held in early June, NYC-based rapper, Fat Joe, graced the festivities, to the delight of the local residents and art fans that flocked the intersection of Troutman and St. Nicholas.

Hand of Protest. (2014). Photo by venusinorbit. Murals by Dasic Fernández and Col Wallnuts at Bushwick Collective.

Chilean artist Dasic Fernández, whose murals can be seen in several locations in Bushwick and all over NYC, says that much has changed in the area since he moved to NYC in 2009. Fernández, who started painting in the area upon his arrival, personally witnessed the transformation from an area where no one would choose to walk around on a Sunday afternoon, to the now bustling artistic hub, attracting artists and art fans from all over the world.

From Rochester to Queens, Manhattan to Brooklyn, murals have transformed the city’s landscape. It has also changed the lives of those living in these areas and the artists themselves. Fernández sums it up perfectly:

To me, the most important projects, or the most relevant ones, come from a need. So in my case, that’s the reason why I’ve been spending so many years painting in this areas, because I feel it is necessary. At the same time, the people who live in those areas are extremely receptive and they appreciate the work that you do to hook up their environment a little bit.

I see it in this very simple way: aesthetically, rich areas are beautiful but at the same time there is a lack of “soul.” Everything looks kind of artificial or there is no identity and the people there are not worried about it because they don’t really need it, and if they do it is very hard to get it.

At the same time poor areas suffer a lack of beauty but the “soul” is all that they have – people party together, they get together and they are proud of their culture. They have humor and many other elements that create identity; so what they need is beauty (still aesthetically speaking) and that can be simple to provide and I believe that art can contribute tremendously in this topic. Beside the aesthetic, art projects can involve the communities and work with them which actually make the communities stronger, making art itself a great source of inspiration.

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