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Abstract

In cities across America, outdoor mural paintings have brought public art to the urban landscape. Paint and politics have been splashed upon city walls for decades, replacing bleak, often graffitied, exteriors with vibrant color. But this transformation runs deeper than the artistry of the murals; the real works of art are the changes these collaborative projects inspire within communities. Mural projects mobilize communities to articulate dreams, express frustrations, and most importantly, consider strategies for change. Thus, they are a worthy consideration for public policymakers. This case study traces the contemporary mural movement in three cities: Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. It examines the evolution of mural art from impromptu political protest (used by largely African American and Chicano communities to challenge the political and cultural establishment in the 1960s) to programs administered and funded by municipalities. This paper explains how mural arts projects can establish communal bonds in urban centers rife with racial, social, and economic divides; how they can build social and intellectual capital in “at-risk” youth; and how they can enhance the physical perception and quality of urban neighborhoods. Through reliance on secondary sources and personal interviews, this case study also develops an historical account of Boston’s mural arts initiatives. Additional research was gathered through correspondence, visits to mural centers, and viewing murals onsite. Both the murals and the processes by which they are created offer narratives about community events and experiences. This study concludes that Boston should strengthen its existing mural program, the Boston Mural Crew, in order to maximize its efficacy. This could be accomplished by promoting murals as cultural tourism, devising new economic strategies, facilitating coordination between arts agencies, fostering public and media relations, and protecting artists’ rights. Municipal mural programs must be integrated within the urban environment to be effective: they should beautify surroundings while serving a higher educational or social purpose. A meaningless public mural is a missed opportunity. Policymakers must let community-based murals be their muse. Many of these projects have inspired ingenuity in urban neighborhoods, so too, could they succeed in the realms of community and economic development.

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