In Miami, the Murals Are the Message

In Miami, the Murals Are the Message


More from the Fine Arts & Exhibits special report: Art Takes a Stand.

MIAMI — With year-round sunshine and a blossoming international art culture, Miami has become one of the street art capitals of the world.

Bright, colorful murals are turning up all over town on the walls of office buildings, warehouses, condos, corner stores, laundromats, and even public schools, sports stadiums and a police station. One section of Miami, Wynwood, is so dense with murals that it is getting hard to find an empty wall.

Often, the work carries a strong social message on subjects from environmental degradation to poverty and wealth, immigration, education, gender, and racial and ethnic diversity. Some work jabs at some of humanity’s worst tendencies. Sometimes, the messages shout. Sometimes, they are more like a whisper. Here is a selection.

Reinier Gamboa worries about the rising ocean, the near extinction of the Florida panther and the struggle of manatees to avoid being sliced by the propellers of pleasure boats. He mixes images of them and other creatures. “It’s a bit surreal,” he said. “You don’t normally see these animals together. The background is the ocean. It’s our main threat. It’s in the background of everything.” Mr. Gamboa, who arrived in Miami from Cuba when he was 11, collaborated with three friends on his mural to embed environmental messages that can be read with a cellphone.


“I’m all about empowerment of women,” Claudia La Bianca said. “I want to inspire women to stand on their own, to be strong.” In this painting, she shows three women wearing bandannas, their steady eyes staring down the world. “These are badass girls,” Ms. La Bianca said. “They have everything together: mind, body, finances and swagger.” She grew up in Sicily in a family of women. “I think that enabled me to connect with women in a deeper way,” she said.

PixelPancho, an Italian who uses only his professional name, said his painting on the front of a middle school was inspired by Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” portrait of a Midwest farm couple with a pitchfork. His three-story mural is a criticism of education in America and elsewhere, he said, and an encouragement to young people. “We don’t teach our children the whole story,” he said. “It’s criticizing all Western education. But it’s also saying, ‘Whatever they are telling you, there is more. Look for it.’”


Tomokazu Matsuyama, born in Japan and living in Brooklyn, blends colors, patterns and styles — from Japanese traditional to Victorian to contemporary. In this painting, it takes a moment for his characters to emerge from the weave of colors and design. And it takes some thought to see that he is commenting on race, ethnicity, gender and culture. “I’m trying to mix all these aesthetics to define who we are as global citizens,” Mr. Matsuyama said, “to find some common threads.”


Marcus Blake, born in Jamaica, said his goal was to brighten neighborhoods. He works mostly with bold, bright colors in swirls and geometric shapes. “I transform buildings,” he said. “They become more welcoming.” As buildings shed their tired, worn look, whole neighborhoods begin to change. “The work translates into social action,” he said.


Serge Toussaint has lived most of his life in Miami and New York. But he was born in Haiti, and he strives to keep its culture and history alive for other Haitian immigrants. “When a Haitian mother or father shows their children a picture of Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy, they know who it is,” Mr. Toussaint said. “But they don’t recognize their own Haitian heroes.” He has painted a mural of Neg Mawon, the rebel slave who symbolizes Haiti’s independence from France, and a portrait of Gen. Henri Christophe, a leader of Haiti’s revolution.


Ivan Roque’s fierce lionfish explodes off the deep red wall of a discount perfume company. “The lionfish is one of the most destructive creatures in the ocean,” Mr. Roque said. “And it’s out there because of another mistake by humans. People didn’t want to kill the lionfish in their aquariums, their pets. So they dumped them in the ocean.” Now they are threatening the extinction of some small fish and destroying coral reefs.

Ron English started out running in the streets with graffiti artists, dodging the police in New York. He has become known for his cartoonish figures that make fun of fast food and call attention to obesity in America. In his mural here, he is mocking the selfie culture with Temper Tot, his over-muscled child character that he says represents an immature superpower. “People are so absorbed in taking snapshots of themselves,” he said, “that they’re missing what’s going on around them. They don’t see things and they don’t talk to each other.”


Their serene faces beam out over Miami from an eight-story wall, a young woman holding a single long-stem rose, a boy with palms upward in prayer. They are regular people whom the artist, El Mac, a.k.a. Miles MacGregor, of Los Angeles, said he tried to infuse with dignity and tranquillity. He sees the work as a counterpoint to the rancorous discourse of 21st-century America and the country’s trail of social injustice. “My hope is that when anyone see this, they’ll be able to tap into the feelings; they’ll feel a kind of balance to all the anxiety.”


The women in Tristan Eaton’s mural are striking, strong, steady in their gaze. They project power. Their silver and blue complexions, the red accents and the white stars streaming across them, shout authority. He grew up in Detroit and New York, now lives in Los Angeles. “I’m cheering the idea of women having a greater voice and an equal seat at the table,” Mr. Eaton said. “Sometimes seeing imagery like this can solidify people’s viewpoints and they realize they’re not alone.”


Shepard Fairey celebrates mavericks, spiritual leaders and the good green earth in this quilt of portraits and symbols in marigold and rose. “The better side of human potential,” he said. Mr. Fairey spotlights Tony Goldman, a developer who liked cowboy hats and used street art to help transform downtrodden neighborhoods in Miami and New York. Mr. Goldman died in 2012. The Dalai Lama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. anchor the mural. Mr. Fairey worked in David Bowie, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol and others he and Mr. Goldman admired.



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