The Magic of Murals
When used to create oversized, hard-to-miss art, paint can have placemaking powers
Outdoor murals are a form of public art — but they are also landmarks, storytellers, economic development tools and "placemakers." Spectacular scenes and famous faces (rock legend David Bowie, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ...) are appearing on buildings in big cities and small towns throughout the United States. Following are just a few of the stop-and-look-worthy murals that AARP Livable Communities colleagues and volunteers have admired during their travels or even helped to create. Information about each colorful creation appears below the image.
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635 North Carolina Avenue SE, Washington, D.C.
Created by artist Aniekan Udofia, the mural "Mermaid" floats across the entrance to the William Rumsey Aquatic Facility. It was created in 2014 as part of MuralsDC, a project funded by the district's Department of Public Works in cooperation with the arts and humanities commission. Although the program typically selects locations that are targets of or are at risk for graffiti, building owners are invited to offer the use of their walls.
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837 Jersey Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey
Located across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan, Jersey City launched a mural program in 2013 to "create an outdoor gallery citywide," the Jersey Journal reported, "showcasing the works of local, national and international artists." Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra created his 180-foot-tall, kaleidoscopic spray-painted mural in 2016, a few months after singer David Bowie's death. Mayor Steve Fulop called the towering tribute, which accurately captures the musician's unique gaze, "an iconic image that will draw people here to visit the mural and our entire collection of outdoor art."
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112 E. Main Street, Marion, Virginia
The Song of the Mountains concert series of "old-time" and bluegrass music is staged at The Lincoln Theatre and broadcast on select PBS stations. The mural, by painter and show host Tim White, is on the side of Hester's Country Store & Fudgery, which is located near the historic theater. After opening in 1929, the theater was closed and abandoned in 1977, then reopened in 2004 thanks to the advocacy of local residents.
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Near 308 7th Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Located on the side of the city-run Smithfield-Liberty parking garage, "Yesterday's Tomorrow" is a nearly 3,000-square-foot transportation-themed work of art. "There's sidewalks zig-zagging everywhere throughout the piece," artist Brian Holderman told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in 2006. "That's kind of an homage to the oldest form of transportation, which is your feet." The mural was financed by the nonprofit Sprout Fund to "sprinkle the city with art," the paper reported.
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2855 Tremont Place, Denver, Colorado
Created in 2015 by artist Frank Garza, the mural "No Shoes Too Big" is a tribute to the ethnic diversity of the city's Five Points neighborhood. The local news and culture guide Westword describes the work as a “first of its kind in Denver, putting a cloth-like material coating called Polytab on the wall beneath the paint, to ensure that the brick and rest of the exterior is not damaged.”
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5600 E. Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC
Maya Angelou, the late poet, author and civil rights activist, is present throughout the young adult learning center named in her honor. The mural at the high school wing's entrance was created in 2019 by artist Eric B. Ricks and, contrary to what viewers might assume, isn't solely an homage to Angelou's celebrated memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “The main motif is a bird feeding a younger bird because she’s nurturing the young mind and this is where you are feeding the mind," Ricks told WJLA-TV. The quotation on the wall is by Angelou and reads: "If you're always trying to be normal you will never know how Amazing you can be."
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90 Adams Street, Delmar, New York
The nonprofit Art on the Rail Trail (ART), an initiative of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, sponsors art installations along the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, which is used by pedestrians and cyclists in warm weather and cross-country skiers and snowshoe hikers in the winter. Its first mural transformed a graffitied wall (see the before image at top) facing Hudson Avenue into, said artist Andrea Hersh, "a lush and pristine world of imagined creatures." The mural was funded by a grant from the AARP Community Challenge. (Learn more by clicking the Community Challenge link at the top of this page.)
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701 E. Colfax Avenue, Denver, Colorado
Vision Zero is an initiative, developed in Sweden and adopted by many U.S. cities to promote traffic safety. "The Streets Are for the People," designed by artists Pat Milbery and Pat McKinney, was created with the input of high school students and completed in 2018. According to the nonprofit WalkDenver, "This artwork supports a dialogue among residents, city officials, advocacy groups, and artists about our community values, and how we design our neighborhoods and streets to reflect those values."
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2945 Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado
The mural "Love Is Love" by Lindee Zimmer debuted in 2019 as part of the city's 10th annual CRUSH Walls festival, which transforms the streets and alleys of the RiNo (River North) Art District into "permanent, open-air galleries," the organizers explain. CRUSH, which stands for Creative Rituals Under Social Harmony, "brings art to everyone," the festival's website explains. "Instead of using walls to divide, CRUSH uses walls to unite!"
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1508 U Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a larger than life presence in the nation's capital. Commissioned by the boutique real estate firm Flock DC for the side of its building, the mural shows the octogenarian jurist wearing her signature lace collar and, in recognition of the art's benefactor, releasing a flock of birds. The mural by artist Rose Jaffe combines installed panels with paint that was directly applied to the building's red bricks.
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11 North Court Square, Newnan, Georgia
Country music star Alan Jackson was born in Newnan. In 2018, the town's artist-in-residence, Tim Davis, created a mural of the entertainer based on input from Jackson's management and fan club. The mural's location on an exterior wall of the Redneck Gourmet, a Southern-style delicatessen, was very intentional. "We wanted the most visible location we could get," a board member of the town's ArtRez program told the Newnan Times-Herald. "We think hundreds of people will get off the interstate to get a selfie with their superstar Alan."
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44 S. 69th Street, Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
"Discover Upper Darby," a 135-feet-long mural that received grant funding from the AARP Community Challenge, was designed by local art teacher Christina Roberts and literally painted by the community, with Mayor Tom Micozzie, residents and AARP volunteers taking paintbrushes to the brick wall. The mural includes depictions of local attractions, famous residents (comedy star Tina Fey was born and raised in the town) and the word "Hello" written in 60 languages. "It has given us the opportunity to say we care about the arts," Tamara Crump, the town's community business and economic development director told the local paper. “We're welcoming you into our entertainment and shopping district."
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700 9th Street, Durham, North Carolina
"Angel of Spring" by artist Michael Brown was created in 2015 as part of a city program to support independent business owners in the Ninth Street commercial district. According to MuralDurham, the artist’s intent was to "incorporate the lively nature of the community as well as colors and symbols that reflect the businesses housed within the building." The figure rising from a trail of flowers is a depiction of Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring. Her inclusion in the mural is a reference to Ninth Street Flowers, a shop inside the building. Her dancelike pose relates to a second-floor dance studio.
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126 North 3rd Street, Danville, Kentucky
Until recently, public art displays were prohibited in Danville's historic district. In 2017, the nonprofit Heart of Danville installed this mural designed by muralist Andee Rudloff, painted by volunteers and funded with assistance from the AARP Community Challenge.
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719 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida
We'll end at the beginning — specifically AARP's beginning. The skateboarder with the rad moves is Ethel Percy Andrus, the retired educator turned advocate who founded AARP in 1958. In 2017, AARP Florida and the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance presented the St. Petersburg Accessible Mural Tour featuring 40 murals, including "Extreme Ethel," which can be found soaring above a roadway at the Morean Arts Center.
Watch the video below to see "Ethel" muralist Derek Donnelly at work.
Scroll further down to learn more about placemaking.
Video: See a Mural in the Making
The last mural shown in the slideshow above is of AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus riding a skateboard. (No, we don't believe that is something she ever did in real life.) Watch the video below to learn why murals are popping up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and see how "Extreme Ethel" was created.
More Placemaking, More Murals
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