Are mu­rals mak­ing our cities all look the same?


Are mu­rals mak­ing our cities look the same? From Ed­mon­ton to L.A., our writer fil­ters through the bright pink walls and an­gel wings.

LINDA HOANG LAUGHS AS SHE TALKS ABOUT HER “LIFE­LONG QUEST” to be pho­tographed in front of pink mu­rals in cities around the world: The Ed­mon­ton blog­ger’s In­sta­gram feed is a tes­ta­ment to the power of pretty walls. In one photo she’s in a sum­mer dress, pos­ing mid-stride in front of a pink brick wall on Boule­vard Saint-Lau­rent in Mon­treal. In an­other, she’s an­kledeep in snow in front of a pink wall at Keyano Col­lege in Fort McMur­ray. In her pro­file pic, a much tighter shot, she looks straight at the cam­era, wear­ing cut-offs and a huge grin. She is, af­ter all, in front of the mecca of pink walls, the Paul Smith store on Mel­rose Av­enue in Los An­ge­les. “If you want your pic­ture very wide, you have to wait for the other peo­ple to leave,” she says. “There are dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple all along the wall get­ting a slice of the pink.”

With mil­lions of In­sta­gram­mers look­ing for art­ful back­drops, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, neigh­bour­hoods and in­di­vid­ual busi­nesses are hir­ing artists to give the peo­ple what they want. The tech­ni­colour Wyn­wood Walls in Mi­ami draw Art Basel spillovers and bach­e­lorettes alike. Mural fes­ti­vals are pop­ping up ev­ery­where from Es­to­nia to New Zealand. And tours of In­sta­grammable walls are a hit from Hol­ly­wood to Hong Kong. But as ev­ery neigh­bour­hood slaps up some an­gel wings and hauls out the pink paint, our streets – and In­sta­gram feeds – are be­gin­ning to look aw­fully sim­i­lar.

Long be­fore hash­tags came along, street art used to be edgy, even dan­ger­ous. Just ask Banksy. Back in the 1990s, the fa­mous satir­i­cal artist was hid­ing from po­lice un­der a garbage truck when he no­ticed sten­cilling on the un­der­car­riage and found the in­spi­ra­tion for his sig­na­ture, and much speed­ier, style. Co­lette Miller, too, kept an eye out for the cops when she painted her first pair of an­gel wings on a metal wall in Los An­ge­les in 2012. The paint was barely dry when peo­ple started pos­ing, hands held

to­gether in prayer, and post­ing their blessed pho­tos on­line. Be­fore you could say “City of An­gels,” wings were show­ing up on walls all over the world.

“You get sta­tus by be­ing in a place,” says John D. Boy, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Am­s­ter­dam who stud­ies In­sta­gram. “But what ac­tu­ally hap­pens is that places be­come non-places as they be­come more in­dis­tinct. No longer do peo­ple know that you are in L.A. when they see an­gel wings. You might just be in your own home­town where some­body painted the same thing.”

We have long used pic­tures of our trav­els to show off to fam­ily and friends: Think of the dreaded sa­fari slide show in the neigh­bour’s base­ment. But In­sta­gram is shift­ing our sta­tus-seek­ing away from where we are to how we look while we’re there.

Some mu­rals do speak to lo­ca­tion – take the me­mo­rial of Bobby Sands in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land, or the sleep­ing po­lar bear on the Po­lar Bear Hold­ing Fa­cil­ity in Churchill, Man­i­toba. But a sense of place isn’t re­quired for ’gram­mers to get the likes they are af­ter. “When I am look­ing at walls I’m think­ing, Does that stop me in my tracks and will that stop peo­ple when they’re scrolling through my so­cial me­dia feed?” says Hoang, who maps out the walls she wants to see be­fore her plane lands in any city.

Yet in seek­ing the same vi­su­als in city af­ter city, trav­ellers may also dis­cover a plethora of dif­fer­ences – lo­cal flavours, restau­rants and com­mu­ni­ties. For Hoang, who also gives tours of In­sta­grammable walls in Ed­mon­ton, “It be­comes less about the in­di­vid­ual wall and more about that neigh­bour­hood or the ex­pe­ri­ence of walk­ing and ex­plor­ing.” That’s ex­actly what an Ed­mon­ton restau­rant owner had in mind when he launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to hire Span­ish artist Okuda San Miguel to brighten the view from his pa­tio in Old Strath­cona. The re­sult is one of Hoang’s favourite tour stops, a vi­brant, ge­o­met­ri­cal

With mil­lions of In­sta­gram­mers look­ing for art­ful back­drops, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, neigh­bour­hoods and in­di­vid­ual busi­nesses are hir­ing artists to give the peo­ple what they want.

beast that spans six storeys – and re­sem­bles mu­rals the artist has painted in sev­eral places, from Mu­nich to Morocco.

As street art moves from gritty to ’grammable, those com­mis­sion­ing mu­rals to mar­ket a des­ti­na­tion are get­ting savvier. The new al­most-eight-me­tre-high ea­gle wings on Bur­rard and West 4th Av­enue in Van­cou­ver are “top of my list,” de­clares Hoang, who plans to add the mural to her col­lec­tion soon. And when she posts the cov­eted photo, her fol­low­ers won’t need to check her hash­tags to see where she is: “Kit­si­lano” is writ­ten right over the wingtip.

TOP Linda Hoang poses in front of James Wyper’s Af­ter the Flood mural in Cal­gary. OPEN­ING PAGE Wing-wash­ing: a se­lec­tion of seraphic self­ies from around the world. EN HAUT Linda Hoang pose de­vant la murale Af­ter the Flood, de James Wyper, à Cal­gary. EN OUVERTURE Si j’avais les ailes d’un ange : égo­por­traits séraphiques pris au­tour du monde.

TOP The 1,400-square-foot work by Okuda San Miguel in Ed­mon­ton’s Old Strath­cona dis­trict. EN HAUT L’oeu­vre de 130 m2 d’Okuda San Miguel dans le quartier Old Strath­cona d’Ed­mon­ton.

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