On the expansive walls of a building in Brooklyn, surrounded by vibrant colors, two young men find themselves in a tender embrace. Extending across the surface, another young man looks at the screen of a phone, with a computer next to him reading, “looking for hope, loading.” These are the protagonists of a mural that encompasses issues of public interest in the community, such as gentrification, the alt-right, or the history of the United States. “The Rise of Consciousness” is one of many murals that enrich the geography of Williamsburg.
However, these murals aren’t easily produced. They require funds, community effort, and months of planning. This year, the city has proposed to reduce the budget of the Department of Cultural Affairs by almost $78,000, one-third of the budget in 2022. In Williamsburg, non-profit organizations like Groundswell Brooklyn or Los Muralistas need these budgets to create murals. Moreover, during the pandemic the city lost an estimated 283,857 jobs in creative industries, generating little administrative roles to support the production of murals.
In a community consistently threatened by change, artists see their work as a source for addressing difficult issues and how they affect residents. On January 13, a La Avenida de Puerto Rico sign was briefly removed causing an uproar in the community, leading residents to organize in defense of their neighborhood. Similar to the street sign, the symbolism of murals represents the stories and ongoing presence of Latinos in South Williamsburg, also known as Los Sures.
Art with Roots in Activism
“No activist art has had more community support and long-term social impact than murals, a uniquely democratic public art form highly visible and collaboratively executed,” shares the 1977 book, Toward a People’s Art. The book examines the contemporary mural movement in the United States. Murals have their origins in Los Tres Grandes or Big Three: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco y David Alfaro Siqueiro who created murals following the Mexican Revolution. They used the visual narrative of these vast works to demonstrate the history of Mexico to those who could not read or write.
“I think that had a big impact on how mural painting kind of developed in the United States, because there really wasn’t a mural painting tradition before that,” said Joe Matunis, a muralist who has worked in Williamsburg for over three decades. In the 1960s, the United States found itself at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the first murals were influenced by the fight for social justice. This was evident in the emergence of the Young Lords at the end of the decade, who used community art as a form of communication. In New York, community murals began appearing in 1968 in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Lower East Side.
Generating Community Participation
For Groundswell Brooklyn, community participation is essential in creating a mural. “Our approach is really rooted in the community process. There’s multiple points of engagement and participation with communities. Prior to picking up a paintbrush we kick off our projects with community conversations,” said Jamel Burgess, a program manager at Groundswell. The non-profit organization has produced murals based in community activism since 1996. In the last two decades they’ve been able to complete more than 500 murals throughout New York.
This relationship between art and community puts marginalized voices to the forefront, explained Jamel. “Whether it’s the participants from the community-based organizations or just neighbors and people from around the community we seek to engage in a conversation around what they would want to see in a mural.” This is evident in ‘The Golden Birdcage’ created by Latino youth in Williamsburg. The mural represents a Latino family within a cage, caught between their hopes and fears as immigrants, demonstrating the complexity of their sacrifices to come to the United States.
Los Muralistas is another group found in Los Sures, with the majority of their artists also residing in the neighborhood. Joe Matunis, teaching artist, arrived in Williamsburg in the 1990s with the intention of connecting with a community. In contrast to Groundswell, which works by commission, Los Muralistas has been in the neighborhood for generations, using murals to convey activism and civic engagement.
“Depictions in popular culture historically of Latinos in this country have been largely negative. In this neighborhood it was about teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, and poverty. Nothing about the creativity, culture, and the hardworking families,” shared Joe.
For example, ‘La Guacamaya’ shows families separated on the border paired with a visual narrative on combating the climate crisis. Sprawling across Domino Park, the mural builds awareness of the issues, but also brings attention to the resilience of the community.
The Challenges Ahead
The arts and culture sectors will be largely affected by the city’s budget cuts this year. The Department of Cultural Affairs supports libraries, cultural spaces, and community art activities like murals. Sabine Frid-Bernards, a program officer at the Brooklyn Community Foundation explained that, “a lot of times funding can be so restricted that it actually can impact community organizations’ work.” Moreover, the arts and culture sectors have been diminishing since the pandemic. A study from 2021 conducted by the Center for an Urban Future demonstrated a cumulative decline by 36% in the income of arts organizations around the city. The study also finds following the epidemic, three in every four arts organizations in New York had to reduce their budgets.
However, those active in mural-making continue with a positive outlook. “My hope is that folks who participate in our murals are able to see the power of art as a tool. Not only being able to express creatively, but as a tool for advocacy to raise awareness,” shared Jamel, “one that also directly impacts policy and creates change.”