Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE is bustling on a sunny, January day. A few doors down from a natural juice bar greens and purples peek out over the top of a newly constructed building. Bryan Conner’s 2011 mural “Nurturing Community” is now barely visible. The two-story building the piece is painted on once faced an empty lot. Now only the edges of the mural are visible, covered by the offices of a construction company.
“Nurturing Community” isn’t just some elaborate vandalism. The piece was commissioned by a city program called MuralsDC, founded in 2007 when then-D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham decided public funds would be used to cover up unsightly graffiti. D.C.’s Department of Public Works (DPW) was allotted $100,000 annually to cover up illegal paintings with sanctioned murals.
After two years as a pilot project, the cleaning effort was put in the hands of Nancee Lyons, MuralsDC’s coordinator. By the end of 2016, 60 murals had been painted. But things have changed. In the decade since MuralsDC launched, development in D.C. has rapidly shifted the city’s classic look and feel. The facades that were once supported by brick and mortar are now adorned with sleek glass and steel. And as construction continues to boom all around the city, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find space to paint. “It dawned on me that a lot of new buildings really didn’t have wall space,” Lyons says.
But even if a mural should find a home, it has to fight to survive. Down the street from “Nurturing Community,” one piece was feeling the effects of old age. It was one of MuralsDC’s earliest projects, titled “Many Voices Many Beats One City,” which depicts old-school concert posters for acts like D.C. great Chuck Brown.
Cory L. Stowers, one of the mural’s designers, has been an artist and graffiti teacher for two decades. Recently, the work had begun to show its age. The colors were sun-bleached, and the paint was chipping. Stowers has been refurbishing and reimagining it. “For many of the murals, they only have a lifespan of 10 years,” he says, “especially considering the transition that D.C. is in.”
Stowers began his career painting in the U Street corridor and then taught art to young students. He’s been working with MuralsDC since the beginning. At the start, Stowers found himself in an unfamiliar position: Working with the city was unusual for a man who had spent his years crafting graffiti. But as the years passed, development has affected both his graffiti and murals. Many of his early works in Northwest have disappeared, existing only in photographs.
“There’s this communal aspect to the creation of murals,” he says. “It’s our contribution to the city. It almost feels like that contribution gets devalued when a work is built over, or the building is destroyed, or even when it’s just painted over. It’s kind of like that contribution has been wasted because it’s no longer there.”
Moreover, the murals appeal to a bigger audience. When it comes to his graffiti, only he and other graffiti artists relate to and appreciate them, he says. But when it comes to murals, each work connects with thousands of people on a daily basis.
“I think the level of connectivity that people have when it’s a mural—it’s a connection that greatly outweighs the connection they have with graffiti. It’s a bigger loss [when it’s gone].”
It’s a sense of community that Dr. Perry Frank found herself attracted to decades ago, in 1996. Frank had been living in Washington for 20 years when she realized how many murals were appearing on the the city’s walls. Frank viewed these pieces as a kind of puzzle.
“I had been looking at the murals going up in D.C. and thinking, ‘Who did that? What does it mean? Who are they for?’ There was very little information about it at that time.”
So she created a place to document the city’s mural history: D.C. Murals: Spectacle and Story, a website she still maintains.
One of the earliest murals in town, and one of the first Frank catalogued, was painted on the campus of Howard University in 1968. At the time, protests and student activism energized the campus. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had created a desire for more relevant curriculum at Howard. In this climate, art prospered and grew, and that first piece, “Fine Arts,” remained on campus until 1980.
Around the same time, D.C.’s Latino art scene was erupting. “Un Pueblo Sin Murales” is one of the earliest and most recognizable pieces to come out of the era. Devious-looking men gamble in the corner, standing in stark contrast to the surrounding musicians and dancers. The painting, situated on Adams Mill Road NW, has a title featuring some wordplay. Literally, the title means, “a town without murals,” but also suggests, “a town without morals”—perhaps referring to the difference between the gamblers and the dancers.
Frank chronicles the long-eroded murals of yesteryear—pieces lost to construction, repainting, and growth—on her website under a section called “mural graveyard.” It’s kind of a grim and ominous title, but she says development and change are forces that shouldn’t be feared or demonized. “[A mural] helps commerce because it is an attraction,” she says.
Frank thinks that there should be regulation protecting murals just as regulations protect historic buildings and facades. She doesn’t want the lack of space to become an issue, and she’d prefer to make sure that the art that exists is preserved and maintained.
“Let us not make it a fight between development and art and make it worse than it really is,” she says. “Let’s try to come together around this.”
Lyons also tallies her losses. She has a PDF document of the murals she’s commissioned that have been destroyed or affected by construction. It’s a challenging position she finds herself in: She’s trying to find places for art—and making sure public funds are put to good use—but she also has to contend with the fact that murals are impermanent by nature. (Lyons says she requires all of the murals she commissions last for at least two years.)
“[Murals] mirror the fact that the city and life are always changing,” Lyons says. “It’s the reality that we have a changing cityscape, but I would like to see those [murals] that are intended to last be restored periodically so that they can be appreciated by the public.”
The preservation and future of D.C.’s murals isn’t only in the hands of government. In fact, both Frank and Lyons have been in independent discussions with developers about putting murals in when they build, and in 2015, that started to happen.
Nearly two years ago, JBG Companies—a large, regional developer that owns retail, residential, lodging, and office space across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—began putting murals on its properties. Since then, the company has commissioned at least two dozen murals.
“We really are trying to set a tone for a project and to show the commitment to the building owner and the community,” says Brian Coulter, a managing partner at JBG Companies.
One of the most unconventional projects JBG commissioned was a mural inside its parking garage at its corporate offices in Chevy Chase. According to Coulter, it was a way to make something mundane more exciting and welcoming.
“People drive underground and then typically kind of scurry to find the elevator to get out of the garage to get where they’re going,” he says. “We started thinking, ‘There’s probably something we can do to improve the arrival experience for visitors when they come into projects or people who are working and living here.’”
The main idea is to create interest and vitality. Coulter says people remembering or noticing their murals is a way to have a positive impact in the community. He, however, disagrees with Frank and doesn’t think there is a tangible benefit to putting these murals up. His company isn’t only building in locations with public art, like a mural.
“The projects are advancing and being built, and the incorporation of public art into them isn’t what’s causing the advance of the project in the first place,” says Coulter. “To me it’s a feature, it’s something done to bolster and improve the overall execution, but it’s not the reason for being of the project”
It’s “placemaking,” he says. “People like nice things. People like nice environments”
But that placemaking doesn’t always make room for murals. A well-known work on Massachusetts Avenue NW was partially covered by an apartment complex built for JBG. It was a piece by D.C. artist G. Byron Peck dedicated to writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The last remaining visible parts of the piece were covered by sheets of metal. JBG no longer manages the property.
Peck describes his relationship with development companies like JBG as “complicated.”
“It hurts more to walk by a mural being destroyed by backhoes and sledgehammers,” Peck says. “For me it’s a rather painful process to witness it. It’s rather depressing. But then you say, ‘well I’ll just make more murals.’”
Peck has lost many of his pieces to development and time. Still, he’s a fan of JBG’s mural program. Any art, he says, is good art.
“As long as they don’t tear up one of my murals to put one of theirs up,” Peck says. “I wouldn’t want to cover up beautiful architecture with a mural if it’s not justified.”
Peck has also created murals for JBG—the same company that covered up his work—in Silver Spring.
Coulter asserts that JBG’s end goal is the same as that of any other public art project: to better the general community experience. But it’s also making Lyons’ job a little harder, because she can’t find space for her art.
Lyons annual budget of $100,000 for commissions has not changed during the entire decade of the program’s existence. Each year, she tries to put up or refurbish approximately eight different pieces. The only thing that changes each year is how that money is spent. But the question of spending the same amount of money to potentially create fewer murals does not worry Lyons. “I have found that the construction in the district has not allowed for a lot of wall space, but that doesn’t mean things are going to change,” she says.
In addition to repainting and reimagining existing murals like Frank desires—and as Stowers does—artists are exploring methods to ensure the survival of specific pieces of art. A famous portrait of Duke Ellington by Peck, for example, was painted on removable panels. The panels are expensive, made of thin concrete, and the piece is splayed onto slabs with expensive paint that weathers well.
Unfortunately, the whole process is incredibly costly, and, in the case of Peck’s piece, the original structure that held the portable mural can no longer handle its weight. Now Peck is working on printing a large-scale, digital recreation of the piece, but finding a large enough facade to hold it is proving difficult.
“A mural has a better impact on the community when it’s sizable,” Lyons says. “The smaller a mural is, the artist’s design sometimes gets lost.”
And this concerns her because, for an artist, having a canvas to fill is everything.
“I’m hoping that now it’s not a marker for things turning back in the opposite direction,” Lyons says of the way the city’s architecture has changed. “It’s hard to get really good artists if you don’t have really good wall space.”
Lyons says she’s discussed asking developers to add mural space to their buildings. She finds herself in the ongoing challenge of fighting for not only the murals that exist, but also the ones that are yet to be installed.
She plans to work on six to eight murals across the city in 2017. Of those, some of the pieces will be refurbished, while others will be newly commissioned. It all comes down to what she can find.
“It’s ironic,” she said. “People agree to have murals, but it’s harder and harder to find a place to put them.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this piece originally named Colbert Kennedy as the artist of the mural “Nurturing Community.” The artist is Bryan Conner.