A Blueprint For A Better Mural Festival


There has never been a time in human history that so many large scale murals have been created globally. There have always been locally focused mural movements like the Mexican mural movement of the 1920’s, The Chicano mural movement of the 1960’s, the Northern Irish mural movement that began in the 1970’s or the mural arts programme of Philadelphia that started in the 1980’s but the increasing scale and distribution of mural art globally over the past decade is a new phenomenon. 

There are many factors driving the proliferation of these large scale works and I have a pretty good understanding of many of them. The mural festival is a key proponent of all of this and I have seen it’s evolution as both an organiser and participant. At the age of 20 I had read about what were then called Graffiti Jams from various/mostly European graffiti magazines. The most famous one at that time was Meeting of Styles which started in 1995 at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof in Wiesbaden Hall of Fame, a large abandoned warehouse. From the few photos I had seen in the magazines I imagined what a local graffiti jam would look like without even having attended one. This is how Disrupt The System which was a two day event hosted in Auckland’s Aotea Square was first conceived. The premise was simple - international and local artists were invited to paint alongside each other in the plain of day before an audience. Originally the walls were only 2.4m (96”) high and paintable without any type of complicated access equipment. People essentially painted what they would anyway but had the time to really refine it and remember, this was often the first time many got to use European paint. According to the venue attendance would reach around 10,000 people throughout the weekend. It was a massive paradigm shift for both our scene and the public - it shifted public opinion and understanding in many ways. It is without any doubt to me that these style events are what birthed the current large scale mural festival. 

Fast forward from 2000 to 2009 and I’m arriving at Primary Flight in Wynwood, Miami and hooked up a lift and for (what for me at the time was) a large solo wall to paint whatever I wanted. I was already accustomed to using lifts as I’d started a commercial mural business with two of my friends at 22. This meant I was already comfortable with using access equipment and working at heights. Walking around the area to see all the large murals happening I came across Futura and his son 13th Witness working together on his mural. Futura said to me “These days it’s all about these lifts, that’s the new essential you’ve got to have to keep up with the game!”. This was actually a really prophetic observation because within a year the murals had gotten bigger and bigger and people had gone from working on scissors to 40ft booms to suspended swing stages in no time. Within no time the mural festival concept had exploded and I was a lucky benefactor having been in the right place and right time to make that evolution when I did. This had definitely evolved from the graffiti movement and countless of the most renown muralists come from that background. The (what I refer to as) Muralism movement has attracted a really broad range of artists ranging from (the older definition I’d consider) street artists, graphic designers and illustrators. In another interesting shift contemporary artists are increasingly drawn to working at scale outdoors as many from the outdoors are yearning for gallery success and we are passing each other at the door right now. I think that’s a topic of it’s own for another time though.

I’ve seen every type of festival from genuine, small locally conscious festivals which New Zealand and Australia really thrive at through to the most thinly veiled acts of ‘soft-gentrification’ which the United States definitely excels at. When I posed the question two weeks ago about what in the culture needs to change a good portion of the comments highlighted peoples opinions and frustrations with festivals - everything from their curation, environmental and community impact to their very existence at all. This got me thinking about trying to lay out a blueprint for a better festival model. There are aspects of these events that different organisers do very well. Some are super efficient with their environmental strategy but the paradox is they’ll still fly 20-30 people from various global locations. Some have a great emphasis on uplifting local artists and communities without alienating them. What are the long term methods for ensuring that 3rd parties (developers mostly) don’t come in and capitalise from that well intentioned work?

I’d love to hear from everyone over the next few days before I collect my thoughts and your feedback for a longer piece on this topic.

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