Hi there!

I’ve lived in a couple of cities that have had a lot of murals — the standout here from my personal history was Pittsburgh ( Could you talk a little about how projects like this work? Like how do you get permission to paint on buildings and other structures? What goes into maintaining murals? I love this sort of public art but have no idea how it works.




Hi Ira,

Murals are a lot of fun. They add visual interests to a place and often tell you something about the local community. I’m particularly partial to murals depicting something about the history of the place myself. Murals have frequently been used as tools of social activism. Another reason that murals are awesome is that they add to the walkablity of place by making it more fun to be out on the street. Murals are also used to discourage graffiti.

The exact process of getting a mural approved is going to vary a lot city to city as each city will have it own process. There is not really a standardized way that murals are permitted. Small towns are less likely than big cities to have a formal process in place. The formal process can take a long time.

Cities with mural permitting systems regulate a variety of things. For example LA requires that murals remain for at least two years. Most cities also do not allow murals to be used for advertising.

Most mural artists will try to get permission from the owner of the wall before proceeding regardless of city permitting needed. This can be a bit tricky because the owner can be hard to track down. However having permission means that the muralist can can proceed without worrying about getting caught, and that the mural is much more likely to be maintained after it is done. It’s also good to get community buy in for any type of public art.

While murals are cheaper than many other forms of public art they still require labor and materials which cost money. Some big cities have money set aside to specifically to help fund murals, but most murals are privately funded. There are also a variety of non-profits which will provide grants for murals. Some artists will also volunteer their time, or work with community volunteers.

The process of painting a mural is complex. Murals are generally planed before they are painted. The wall must be prepared and the artist must cordon off the area and in many cases set up scaffolding. The artist also has to communicate with various stakeholders such as the building owner, the neighbors and city officials. For a detailed timeline of an artist’s process of mural making see here (starting on page 12).

Murals artists have limited rights should the owners of the wall wish to paint over the wall or knock it down. While the owners are required under the federal Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA) to notify the artist and give them 90 days to remove the art if possible many property owners fail to comply. Even if they do comply it is difficult and expensive to move a mural. Therefore most murals are basically at the property owner’s mercy.

However even when everyone does want to preserve the mural there are challenges to overcome. The best way for murals to last a long time is to plan ahead. A well planned and maintained mural can have life span of 20-30 years. When planning a mural the artist must take into consideration all kinds of factors regarding the wall such as how old it is, what direction it faces, and what’s on the inside of the building.

It’s important to assign responsibility for maintenance before hand. It also important that community members like and support the mural — they are much more likely to take actions that would protect the mural in that case.

For a really thorough look at what it takes to plan and maintain a mural Heritage Preservation has very detailed PDF that you can find here

This just a short overview of all the issues involved with murals. I hope it helps you understand the process and appreciate the murals around you more. To learn more about specific murals or where to see local murals try searching “[your city] murals.”

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