In recent weeks I have been posed a recurring question: ‘How do I start painting murals?’ In one case this question was reframed from an initial: ‘How do I become a street artist?’ While the two incarnations of this question may seem quite different, they are also closely intertwined. While the first version is in many ways a practical enquiry, the potential responses to the latter are somehow both straight-forward and more layered.
Ultimately, to become a street artist you need to take your art to the streets, driven by the motivation to reach an audience in the most direct manner possible, essentially by-passing institutional frameworks. Importantly, there are as many approaches and styles and intentions as there are participants. While graffiti is a more coherent subculture where a network of histories, rules, and expectations (both stylistically and behaviourally) frame membership, post-graffiti street art is much more open-ended and to join the ranks the only requisite is a willingness to act. Whether you paint walls, paste posters, install sculptures, stitch yarn or apply any other technique, it is the act of doing so in the streets and as such subverting the expectations of that setting that becomes your entry point.
The question of how to get into painting murals is also more interesting to reflect upon than it might seem at first. There are several practicalities to consider; from what tools to use (although murals have predominantly been painted with brushes or spray cans, today artists produce work with fire extinguishers, by carving into walls (in the case of Portuguese artist Vhils) or by compiling refuse into colourful wall sculptures (the technique of another Portuguese artist, Bordalo II),to the process of working at a larger scale, both in terms of design and how to practically scale up work (ever operated a scissor lift?). Then there is the challenge of actually finding walls and commissions, itself an art of self-promotion that can be challenging for the more introverted and may require a thick skin.
There are a number of additional issues that manifest, such as the challenging question of how much to charge and whether to compromise on price to gain opportunities, or what stylistic and thematic concessions you might be willing to make when producing a legal work. In contrast to the freedom of hitting the streets, a commissioned mural will often require an understanding of what is deemed acceptable or appropriate, which may mean adopting a more fluid style. However, in a world where recognisable and original aesthetics are valued, this becomes a problematic proposition.
This line of thought leads to another question that surrounds the transition to muralism; should you have a body of un-commissioned work before seeking larger opportunities? Are you somehow less authentic if you have not ‘put in work’? This is part of a broader discussion around the evolution of urban art and its participants. If graffiti and street art’s rebellious roots were once definitive, that has changed as these forms have become mainstream and have found increasingly supported platforms. Artists range from teenagers to parents (and in some instances grandparents), and span all walks of life, including doctors, scientists, teachers and, of course, professional artists.
This diversity means people must come to terms with their motivations, their comfort levels and the potential implications of their actions. Night-time missions inside abandoned buildings won’t suit everyone, nor will more purely disruptive actions, and as such, it is important to think about what approach suits your constitution and situation. The advantage of contemporary urban art is that there are numerous niches to occupy within each branch. The answer to both questions that inspired this article is to understand what you want to accomplish and where you see your work fitting within that scope. Once you understand that, the rest will surely fall into place.
Jessie Rawcliffe works on her mural supporting The Marriage of Figaro. The step into muralism can mean facing a raft of challenges, from the ability to work with briefs to the practicalities of accessing a wall