Tattooed City

Questioning the impact of the Richmond Mural Project on Richmond, Virginia’s cultural identity.

A piece of street art resembles a tattoo. An intricate web of color permanently etched onto a building until it starts to naturally fade away or until it is forcibly removed. Until then, the art sticks out on the smooth facade of the city. Grabbing your attention in such a manner that you can’t look away. The image is so striking that it is all you can remember about that place.

2013 Mural by Etam Cur titled ‘Moonshine’. Source: Richmond Mural Project

Thanks in part to the Richmond Mural Project (RMP), Richmond, Virginia is covered in street art. From head to toe, the city is infused with awe-inspiring murals of amazing technical skill. They are as beautiful as they are creepy, nostalgic, and thought-provoking. The murals bring together many different perspectives and views that are now semi-permanently a part of Richmond’s culture.

But art is as personal as it is cultural. It is a representation of the artist’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. And it is impossible to say that the place in which an artist lives and breathes does not impact their work. That’s why I was intrigued to see where the artists painting the city of Richmond actually come from.

Are they from the area?

Do they know the complicated history surrounding the city?

They are cementing their name and work into the culture of Richmond, but do they even know what the city’s culture is?

To learn more about this, I created a map showing where the artists of the Richmond Mural Project actually come from. It is a diverse group of artists coming from places as far away as Singapore and Australia and as close as Washington DC. Out of the 38 artists who have participated, only fourteen are from the United States,  nine are from the East Coast, and only one is from Richmond.

But what does this mean for the historical city? A city known for it’s southern heritage, racial tensions, craft brews, and river culture. Do murals such as Natalia Rak’s “Let there be light?” and/or Chazme and Sepes’s “Crash Dummies” represent an authentic Richmond culture?

Polish artist, Natalia Rak’s “Let there be light?” painted on the side of Sidewalk Cafe in the Fan. Source: Beaumont Smith

Polish artist, Natalia Rak’s “Let there be light?” painted on the side of Sidewalk Cafe in the Fan.

Does it even matter?

New Jersey native, Dave Ricculli doesn’t think so. “I don’t think non-local artists detract from the [street art] because it still brings people together to celebrate the city of Richmond. RVA is so diverse anyways and people coming from everywhere to create art is still a great accomplishment.”

While Dave is right, it is an impressive feat, I still wonder about the consequences.  Like a tattoo, these public artworks are pricked into the skin of the city, and whether intended or not the city will be judged by them for years to come.

By: Beaumont Smith