Without a doubt, murals have been around as long as people, as a form of valuable testimony of life from the prehistoric time to today. From the cave paintings at Lascaux Grotttoes in southern France to the street art murals of today, people have been leaving signs of their own existence in many places around the world. It is because of the earliest scratchings, carvings, etchings and paintings that we now have priceless knowledge of our history and predecessors, and these murals hold great significance for mankind, as they depicted life activities, everyday scenery and usually religious traditions of the time they were created in, giving us a priceless look of the diversity of our cultures during different periods.
Over the course of time, murals have covered the interiors and exteriors of many public buildings, such as palaces, temples, tombs, museums, libraries, churches and the houses of rich art patrons, spreading onto the streets and architectural elements more recently, all the while keeping their initial meaning and purpose: to paint a picture of society, created from stories, values, dreams, change.
The word mural originates from the Latin word “murus”, meaning wall. Today, we can define mural art as any piece of artwork painted or applied directly onto a wall, ceiling or other larger permanent surfaces, flat, concave or convex, to be precise. A favorite technique of many artists, including masters like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, the art of muralism flourished during the 1920s, after the Mexican revolution.
It is during Mexican Muralism that murals got a new dimension as a powerful visual communication tool, meant to promote the opinion of the people and to transmit social and political messages towards unity. Through the large paintings of “the great three”: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, mural painting became the most important form of expression, often the subject of controversy and always a symbol of solidarity, freedom and hope. The Mexican mural art inspired the creation of many other similar movements around the world, the biggest being the Chicano art movement in the 1960s.
Murals also represent one of the most important features of Northern Ireland, depicting the region's past and present political and religious divisions. Since the 1970s, the country has seen almost 2,000 mural paintings dedicated to the fight against racism and environmentalism, among many other issues. Another famous place charged with political murals was the Berlin Wall, whose Western side saw many murals between its creation in 1961 and its destruction in 1989, including the works by artists Keith Haring and Thierry Noir.
As murals cover quite large surfaces that could be of different texture, constitution, and attributes, mural artists have developed several techniques adaptive to their “canvases”. One of the oldest methods is surely A fresco painting, which sees paint applied on plaster on walls or ceilings. Mixed with water and pigment on wet plaster, the paint interacts with air, causing a chemical reaction which fixes the pigment particles in the plaster.
Other known materials used in mural paintings are tempera, oil painting (one of the easiest, yet opaque methods), acrylic painting, painting using brush, roller or airbrush/aerosol. Sometimes, when finished, the murals can be given coats of varnish or protective acrylic glaze to protect the work from UV rays and surface damage.
More recently, artists have introduced digital techniques of mural painting, such as wallscapes - large advertisements, which could be painted on directly or printed out as vinyl and then attached to a surface. Very often, they are commissioned by patrons, public institutions or large corporations, due to demanding work and the price of murals, and are also sometimes created against the law.
Staying true to their role of expressing religious and political beliefs within societies, murals represent a mighty tool of emancipation, freedom of expression and social activism and propaganda. Mural art is considered as an important aspect of socially engaging art and play a significant role in the relationship between art and politics.
Today, in many places around the world and mostly in South America, mural art is used to speak in the name of and depict communities, nations, and cultures. At the same time, murals represent an aesthetic element that helps them integrate into their environments and turns them into true cultural artifacts and even monumental works. Apart from their well-defined meanings, murals are also created with other purposes, such as advertising or simply for the sake of a beautiful image on a wall.
With urban art becoming more mainstream, many big brands often collaborate with mural artists in creating promotional campaigns and designs, and many world-famous street art and graffiti artists successfully paint their murals everywhere, showing incredible skills and talent which formed their own highly distinctive artistic styles. With such remarkable legacies of artists like Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Os Gemeos, FAILE and many others, an army of younger artists came to produce truly extraordinary works, like the ones of Nychos, Blu, Seth Globepainter, Millo, Phlegm, Icy & Sot and many, many more, creating an amazing oeuvre of mural art for the world to enjoy and relate to.
Editors’ Tip: Murals of New York City: The Best of New York's Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish
From courthouses to libraries, to schoolrooms, to classic hotel watering holes, this book introduces readers to a wide range of cultural icons and artistic treasures. Full-color images of works by the world's most celebrated artists including Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein, Maxfield Parrish, and more are accompanied by an informative and historical commentary. Murals Of New York City is perfect for art and architecture lovers and serves as a resource for New Yorkers, and a souvenir for the millions of tourists who visit the city every year. The book contains addresses and historical information on each mural, artist, and location, including the circumstances in which they were created, restored, and preserved.
All images used for illustrative purposes.