Words by: Monisha Mukherjee
When I moved to Richmond two months ago I was amazed by the art that seemed to pop up on every street corner. Everywhere I went, people were spraying murals and messages, like the city was their canvas. Having grown up in suburban neighborhoods, street art was a foreign concept, something only found in a “real” city. I had always associated murals and street art with a symbol of rebellion, the voice of the people who don’t care about the bureaucracy and the rules. Moving to Richmond and living in a place where I could see an elaborate painting from my window made me feel like I was part of that counter culture too, and I’m not the only one. A short walk from my building to the nearest convenience store and I can catch an eyeful of at least three elaborate murals. The fact that no five minute walk is absent of a mural sighting has made it clear that Richmond is an art city, not defined only by museums and display cases. Everyday, there are new murals materializing on the city’s few remaining blank walls. To newcomers, the art is edgy and exactly the kind of thing they expect from city-living. But for the lower-socioeconomic communities of Richmond, this street art fever is pushing them out.
Street art has come a long way in the social perception since its meager beginning. Back in the 70’s, street art was birthed by a much more villainous name, Graffiti. An important distinction to make when discussing this issue is the difference between graffiti and murals. RVA magazine article “The Anti-Social Socialites: AESTS’2 Richmond Graffiti History” explains people’s separate view of murals explaining how “Legally-created murals have also become a much more accepted form of public art,” and further explains how Richmond’s street art festivals promotion of the murals helps to foster this positive attitude (Neeci, 2019). In the public eye murals are often regarded as real works of art—they are bigger, or more complex—while graffiti is limited to spray painted messages, or just decorative tags of the artists’ names. However, the real key difference between graffiti and murals is that the former is illegal and the latter is not, and when graffiti first started out in the seventies, there was no legal platform. Graffiti has long been associated with poverty and underdevelopment in neighborhoods. New York politician Rudy Giuliani’s “broken-window” policing tried to lower crime rates by targeting smaller offenses, such as vandalism, jaywalking, public drinking, and treating these as the gateway to violent crimes. Due to this policing tactic graffiti artists came under heavy fire and the associations between street art and crime and violence only grew. Daisy Alioto of The New Republic Magazine comments on the perception of graffiti in the 90’s. Alioto(2019) states how it was associated with “gangs of unruly teens, roaming the streets with no respect for private property.” This perception wasn’t uncommon and overtime graffiti artists embraced the rebellion status that was given to them. Graffiti was the language of minority youth and the counterculture. The people that felt that they were voiceless made the illegal act their voice, a symbol of their rebellion. Overtime, graffiti became part of mainstream culture. RVA magazine explains how graffiti is generally associated with hip hop, but in Richmond it was a big part of the skateboarding and hardcore punk scene. (Neeci, 2019) The nineties was when the concept of legal walls first started up, but these walls didn’t possess full murals of artwork. They were decked out in a hundred different tags and artists, but because the connotation of poverty and crime existed when viewing graffiti, landlords and building owners painted over legal walls or got rid of them. In RVA magazine’s 2019 interview article, graffiti artist AEST2 explains how. In Richmond’s very own Fan District, many legal walls were originally painted over. He tells how “The Fan District Association said this art was ruining everything” and that the association was concerned the walls were “going to scare people.” (Neeci, 2019) So even if an intricate piece of graffiti or a larger work existed it would be criminalized and covered up as soon as it was discovered.
However, the legitimacy of certain types of street art and rebellious art has increased thanks to artists like Banksy and Vhils. Present day, neighborhoods in Richmond like the Fan District, Shockoe Slip, and Jackson’s Ward are street art hotspots, are well-known for sprawling murals that cannot be avoided by any passerby. Over the last few years instead of painting over, more building owners have extended an invite to street artists to come and paint one of their walls. Building owners have changed their perspective on street art because now, they can utilize graffiti’s much more socially-accepted cousin, murals. This newer form of street art gets to borrow from graffiti the connotations of rebellion and hipster aesthetic, that appeals to the young generation newly arriving. This is all just another cog in the process of gentrification that’s sweeping through Richmond. From a snapshot overview, this gentrification often looks like a good thing, and is termed revitalization. However the truth of the matter is far more damaging than the beautification that most people see. Companies and stores set up shop in low income neighborhoods because the rent on the spaces is cheaper. The addition of these stores and urban centers allows the landlords in the buildings surrounding to attract the young crowd that looks for those sorts of businesses, and are able to pay more for housing. As more and more of the middle-class move in the neighborhood become more accessible to the middle class, and so the landlords start raising the property value as they know that the new incoming crowd will be willing to pay more for location. Unfortunately the side effect is the blue collar workers, and lower income class living in the neighborhood previously can no longer afford their homes. As less and less of the original population is able to afford the neighborhood, the business that they owned around there gets closed and the entire neighborhood becomes another middle class rich location. Not only does the area lose its history but these displaced people lose the neighborhoods they’ve called home for years.
Just as certain shops, and parks are attraction items to bring in the middle class so are murals and intricate street art. With Richmond playing host to a major art school, and with the city’s creative and social justice scene growing everyday, more and more young creatives are arriving looking for housing. Street art is an extremely smart and subconscious way of pulling these newcomers into less-desirable neighborhoods and driving up the property value. Having a mural painted on a building is cheaper than building a public park, or opening an artisanal coffee shop, and extremely effective for attracting the young middle class creatives. The concept that murals and public art are free is fading away in the midst of this gentrification. Rachael Schater’s article ”The ugly truth: Street Art, Graffiti and the Creative City” explains how street art and all public art is monetized in the paradigm of the creative city (Schacter, 2014). Not only are the murals gentrifying the neighborhoods in which graffiti first appeared, but the mural art form itself is becoming just a gentrified version of graffiti. Murals have risen to become the user-friendly version of an art form that was originally the voice of the oppressed and undesirable.
Claire del Sorbo (2019) cites a big example of graffiti gentrification in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in stating that “Bushwick has followed a pattern of gentrification…young single, predominantly white artists move to the area in search of affordable housing, bringing new capital into the territory.” The Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn is well known for its street art organization known as the bushwick collective, which invites artists from all over the world to paint Brooklyn’s walls. What’s less well-known is that the local graffiti bombers are usually not included in the process. As the canvas of the city is filled up with muralistic artwork, there is less and less room for traditional graffiti artists, and as mural lovers and young creatives fill up lower income neighborhoods, there is less and less room for the people who have called those neighborhoods their home. The reality of graffiti gentrification is undeniable. It’s no coincidence that the neighborhoods in Richmond with the highest rise in murals coincide with a slow rise in property value, and neither is it surprising that every neighborhood facing the takeover of murals was once a redlined, no-go area that would have been filled with graffiti—one of the biggest richmond examples being Jackson’s Ward, a historically black neighborhood just off VCU’s campus. An article about economic displacement by so-called urban renewal in Jackson Ward published by the National Community Reinvestment Coalitions (NCRC) quotes how some “have enjoyed the growing equity in our homes and beautification,” but also that “there are neighbors who can’t afford to buy into the transformation which unfortunately means they have had to leave.” (Whitehurst-Gibson, Mitchell, 2019) The NCRC’s statistics show that between 2000 and 2010, the median value of a home in Jackson Ward climbed more than $100,000, and in that same timeframe, 19% of the Black population had to move out. Jackson ward has since then become the target of many Richmond’s mural walking tours, and the neighborhood is known for its colorful walls and streets. What people don’t see are the walls of graffiti painted over for the murals, and the number of people forced to leave their homes as their communities began catering the higher economics classes.
It’s not surprising that the Richmond neighborhoods affected most by these changing economic demographics are, Church Hill, Jackson’s Ward, Shockoe Slip, and the rest of Downtown and the East End. According to VPM writer Katherin Komp “Building Racial and Economic Equity in Richmond’s East End” (2019), four of the city’s public housing communities are located in the east end, placing a lot of the lower income, and black population in that area. VPM’s article states that the east end area is “88 percent Black, the median household income is about $34,000 and about half of residents are cost-burdened.” Komp goes on to state how the Church Hill neighborhood is facing extreme gentrification, writing how “Between 2000 and 2015, the neighborhood saw a decrease in about 1,000 Black households, while the White population grew by nearly 160 percent.” She notes how “The neighborhood has seen an increase in pricey restaurants and cafes.”(Komp, 2019) However, that isn’t the only thing the neighborhood has seen an increase in. Church Hill, and Shockoe Bottom have also seen an increase in mural art. There aren’t as many elaborate paintings as the Fan District quite yet, but they are growing and quite a few notable works can now be found in these neighborhoods. According to the Richmond Mural Project, many of the murals found in these neighborhoods were painted between 2013 and 2014.(Richmond Mural Project, 2014) Komp’s article shows that housing costs grew the most across this area between 2014 and 2015. Along with new pricey shops and restaurants several murals were also commissioned. This was an extremely clever way of attracting the slowly growing middle class clientele and boost the public perception of these neighborhoods. Murals are such a public form of art, and these detailed works paint the picture of what kind of neighborhood a person is in to be an artistic, progressive area that embraces street art. A much more rosy perception for incoming creatives rather than painting a picture of the blue collar workers and African American populations that truly live there.
It’s hard to think of something as simple as a mural causing so many problems to a neighborhood. Murals themselves are a beautiful form of artwork that does brighten every street they are visible to. But in the creative city, Richmond’s artists should be aware of the consequence of their art and its origins. Murals, despite their efforts, could never replace the rebellious art form of graffiti. To quote the artist AEST2, “it’s illegal—that’s the point of it. When it’s legal[,] that takes away a huge part of what it’s about.”(New Republic, 2019) There is no real comparison between painting a mural and tagging a wall. Murals are made for the public to be seen, and looked at. But a graffiti artist tagging a wall wants to make his or her art ambiguous, he or she wants passersby to wonder what his or her art says and when the art got there. That tag on the wall means that despite the policing and now the gentrification, their voices are still out there, and these graffiti artists will continue to have a place on the city’s canvas, despite others’ understanding.