Murals were a cornerstone of the early community art movement. Between the 1960s and 1990s, hundreds were painted, mostly outdoors, and some – like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Battersea, the Easterhouse Mosaic in Glasgow, or The Battle of Cable Street in Shadwell – became well-known as symbols of political ideas and places. What distinguished them from most public art (including the murals of the Mexican and North American artists who inspired some of this work) was that they really were community projects, painted by local people. That commitment not only gave them a distinctive social role, it influenced the aesthetics, design and even the painting techniques. For example, Carol Kenna and Steve Lobb, who founded Greenwich Mural Workshop in 1976 invented a way of rendering colour in three flat tones to reduce the technical skill required for painting. (I trained with GMW in 1981-82 and murals were part of my community art repertoire for a while: my skills were rudimentary though and I found it was easier to work with large numbers in other forms.)
Many, perhaps most, of those early murals have gone, sometimes as a result of urban redevelopment, sometimes because they deteriorated and it was easier to paint them out than to repair them. But many were lost too because the ideas they represented fell out of fashion: no one is interested in yesterday. In the US, parts of Europe, and the global South, murals remain vibrant and political, having survived and learned to live with the challenge of the aerosol and hip hop culture. Mural festivals are popular in many cities, including Bristol. But the focus is back on the artist, and their work is often part of the regeneration and gentrification. We’re a long way from the community murals of 1970s.
There is growing interest in this work, evident in projects like For Walls With Tongues, which has gathered important interviews with some of the leading artists. The London Mural Preservation Society does a great job researching, documenting and protecting work in the capital, but what out the rest of the country? I was asked recently if I could say which are the best murals, and I realised that my knowledge, always limited, is very out of date. So if you know of a community mural painted between 1960 and 1990 that is still in reasonable condition, I’d really like to hear about it, if only to list them here. Some of them were wonderful, and they deserve to be better appreciated.