The Message Behind Murals
By Shantay Robinson

Photo credit, Darryl Cowherd 1967

As an act of resistance against brutal law enforcement upon black and brown bodies, artists have taken to public art to express their contempt. On walls around the world, you can find murals dedicated to the lives of fallen civilians who were victims of police brutality. These murals, in public spaces, allow the message of injustices to reach audiences who might not read newspaper editorials, attend community town hall meetings, or march at rallies about the issue. A mural for Sandra Bland was erected in Ontario Canada, one for Trayvon Martin in Brooklyn New York, and one for Eric Garner in St. Louis. While each of these murals was painted in cities other than those communities where the victims lived or lost their lives, they were created to espouse a sense of solidarity amongst communities and convey the idea that we are all in this together.

BAIA Talks : Shantay Robinson & the Message Behind Murals


The history of murals reveals they have been and continue to be used as a platform for social concerns. Evidence of said purpose dates back 30,000 to 33,000 years ago, and has survived in the Chauvet Caves in Southern France. Pictures depicting horses, bears, panthers and lions, animals one can imagine were neighbors to the humans that drew their likenesses, still remain intact on the cave walls. The purpose of these murals, not unlike the murals that cover inner city walls today, were made to empower the Paleolithic communities. As a cave painting might have been used to warn fellow humans about the predators that await on the outside of the cave, today our murals are used to identify social concerns like police brutality that young black males and females may encounter when they step out into the world.


“Murals not only beautify the city, but allow for messages of social change to proliferate communities who are typically not addressed as change agents”


While murals are making a big impact in major cities across North America, the history of social-political murals became popular by way of the Mexican Muralists, Diego Rivera, David Sigueros and Jose Orozco. In the 1920s and 1930s, these Mexican painters brought their ideals to public spaces to spark conversations around the ills that plagued Mexico during and after the revolution between 1910 and 1920. Diego Rivera appreciated a great amount of success painting murals, so much so that he was invited to create them in New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco.

Diego Rivera’s influence, felt in the United States, encouraged a movement of black artists in Chicago in 1967 to paint a mural titled “The Wall of Respect.” For the project, artists living and working in the city came together to paint a mural collaboratively. They raised money, held meetings to make consensual decisions about the mural, and established a relationship with the community where the mural was painted. The Wall of Respect depicted the likenesses of black heroes who promoted positive self-identification among the community members. But the project did not end well.


The late 1960s was a time when black revolutionaries were the target of organizations like the FBI and COINTELPRO. Some of the members of the Chicago collaborative began receiving anonymous phone calls and unsigned letters accusing them of being traitors to the group that painted the mural and some artists extinguished their ties with the group. The wall created a turf war among rival gangs who were charging fees for people to visit and take photographs of the wall. And one of the central members to the project was found murdered propped up against the wall.  Although the mural’s purpose was to uplift the neighborhood with positive self-identification, the negativity that plagued the city overshadowed the artists’ efforts.

Murals have served the purpose of memorializing the fallen in various sects of black culture. In many cities you might find murals of hip-hop stars, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac or the likenesses of fallen gang members left to inform the younger generation of the mistakes they made. Sharif Bey a scholar from Syracuse University argues, “[Murals] are not regarded here for their aesthetic qualities, but for their social and emotional power and their impact on public memory.” A wall depicting those affected by gang violence may incorporate the images of several victims with text that memorialize their lives like, “Gone but not forgotten.” These murals serve as a constant reminder to the communities where they exist of the impact of senseless violence that could be prevented and takes away the lives of children, mothers, fathers, and friends.

Stevens, Nelson (Spirit Sister)

Spirit Sister by Nelson Stevens 18 x 18″ Serigraph limited edition of 75, available at

In addition to murals memorializing the lives of those passed on or sparking social consciousness, murals have become a way for the city to beautify itself.  Nonprofit organizations across the country have formed to counteract random graffiti and decorate neighborhoods with art that is affirming. Murals Philadelphia touts, “We believe that art ignites change”  MuralsDC’s mission is “to beautify the city one wall at a time,” and Living Walls Atlanta’s mission is “to create intentional, thought-provoking public art to inspire social change and activate public spaces.” In any one of these cities the organizations are seeking out help from building owners to acquire their canvasses, they are establishing collectives of artists who periodically change the murals they have acquired, and they are actively working to combat negativity.  

But all of this positivity does not come without a bit of controversy. Occasionally when some murals are erected, they are then defaced by vandals. Such was the case with the “Seeds of Resistance” mural in Gainesville, Florida. In less than 24 hours, a mural that espoused Black Lives Matter, fair wage, protect choice, protect voting, and welcome immigrants was vandalized with the changing of words to spell out blue lives matter and seeds of autism, as well as other lewd comments. Although the muralists were able to restore some aspects of the mural to its original state, the mural was ruined.

At times, there are also disagreements between building owners and artists. Artist Ashley Montague of Portland, Oregon created a Black Lives Matter mural on the wall of a pizza shop. But the mural was being threatened by the owner of the pizza shop who does not appreciate the a strikingly unnerving mural of a haloed Mike Brown with two police officers in riot gear depicted behind him. The owner of the shop was thinking of changing the mural to ads for pizza or a gym, but Montague has rights according to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. The VARA allows artists rights to the murals they place on walls.

Like the muralists of the Renaissance who painted biblical scenes for the illiterate who could not read the Bible, murals not only beautify the city, but allow for messages of social change to proliferate communities who are typically not addressed as change agents in this kind of discourse. The Black Lives Matter murals that are painted on inner city walls throughout the world offer the residents of those communities empowerment to make up their minds for themselves instead of being told what to think by force and circumstance. As cities across the country establish nonprofit organizations to erect murals for beautification purposes, it’s important to remember the history of murals and their purpose.

Shantay Robinson participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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