If you’ve been following this blog or my travels at all, you already know that I’m obsessed with murals.
For this reason, I was thrilled when my very first walk around Santa Cruz yielded several colorful outdoor panels. Since that initial exploration, I’ve been hunting down murals wherever I go, and I’m happy to report that I’ve accumulated quite a few sightings – in no small part because the City of Santa Cruz actually subsidizes the creation of murals. The “Matching Grant Mural Program,” started in 1994, awards business owners, property owners, and community groups grants that cover up to 75% of the expenses related to creating murals for their public walls. They match grantees with registered mural artists and together work through a design and buildout process that ensures that the mural will be kept up for at least its projected life span of ten years.
It’s always fun to tease out the themes of any city’s public art. You can tell quite a bit about the character of a place based on the visual representations it chooses to put out into the world – especially when you know that many of them are supported by the local government.
Not surprisingly, Santa Cruz murals frequently depict the boardwalk’s scenes and amusement park rides. The city is home to the last of the historic west coast boardwalks and is proud of the fact that it has fostered the boardwalk’s preservation when other communities were developing their coastal land into vacation home complexes. The silhouette of the signature “Big Dipper” roller coaster is instantly recognizable, making it a great image to include in any kind of art piece. Needless to say, it appears in every color and form all over town.
Ocean dwelling creatures are frequent subjects of murals, as are two of Santa Cruz’s classic ocean-based sports – surfing and sailing. This town defines itself by its proximity to the water, and very clearly celebrates both the marine life that thrives in it and the athletes that excel on it.
The other common theme I’ve observed — that I wouldn’t have expected – is music. Sure, there are a bunch of clubs in town, including a fairly well-known jazz venue; however, I don’t think many people would call Santa Cruz a big “music town.” Yet, there are several huge murals in the city with musical themes, and quite a few others in which musicians and dancers appear. Perhaps this represents a community aspiration to be more musical, or maybe I just need to look harder to appreciate the depth of music that’s locally available.
Santa Cruz has a large homeless population – it’s estimated to be about 2000 people in a city of 50,000. However, statistics say that this number has dropped about 40% in the last few years. Interestingly, the last blogpost I wrote about public murals focused on the art of Salt Lake City, where the majority of murals were located in the same neighborhood as the homeless shelters and food kitchens. These neighborhoods were slowly climbing out of slum status too. It’s not hard to find articles about murals going up in the “favelas” (slums) of Rio de Janeiro and the worst neighborhoods in Bogota where they’re helping to inspire residents to take pride in their communities. In another recent blogpost, I talked about the public art of Spanish Harlem (now called “El Barrio”), an area of Manhattan once avoided by nearly everyone that is now a colorful, safe, and demographically mixed neighborhood.
Which comes first, the art, or the community’s investment in the neighborhood? Do murals help to propel an area out of slum status or are the murals simply the result of the residents’ and city officials’ desires to steer the neighborhood in a new direction?
While I am not sure about the causal relationship between murals and social progress, I continue to be certain that bright, positive, creative expression in community spaces is a powerful force. Murals make me slow down and smile every time I see them – whether they are familiar ones I see every day or new works for my eyes to take in. That’s enough evidence for me to support any community’s mission to decorate its downtown.