VOICE/IDEA: The Power of Murals

VOICEIDEA_ Murals (1)

Art has been around for as long as humans. From the very beginning with cave paintings to figurative scenes to street art, it has been used as an expression of experiences, perspectives, and stories. The importance of its presence cannot be understated.

Within this broad spectrum of ‘art’ are murals. From a long history rooted in politics and solidarity, murals often act as a voice of the people, displaying unique art pieces on large scales that create conversation and sometimes even help create social change.


The word mural stems from the Latin word ‘murus’ meaning ‘wall’; creating the definition that a mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly onto a wall, ceiling or other larger permanent surfaces, flat, concave or convex. However, with this definition, cave paintings or the Sistine Chapel ceiling may not be the first things that come to mind when talking about murals. This is because muralism became much more popular during the 1920’s, specifically after the Mexican revolution.


Originally used as a way to convey visual messages to an illiterate population, murals during this time presented the opportunity to create inclusiveness and cohesiveness in communities. In the Mexican Muralist movement, visual messages often promoted pride in cultural identity, political views, and historical importance (see Diego Rivera). It was because of this shift in expression that murals became a popular method of communication and resistance.



Following the Mexican Muralist movement was the Chicano Art movement in the 1960’s, created by Americans of Mexican descent. The movement emphasized otherwise ‘invisible’ histories and people, seeking social justice and equality as well as to reclaim and educate others of their rich heritage. Building onto the idea of using public art as a method of conversation and protest, pieces were created with the involvement of community members by discussing and utilizing their history, aspirations, and struggles.


One of the most popular demonstrations of street art is the Berlin Wall. Constructed in 1961, the wall separated East Berlin and West Berlin until 1989 as a result of political clashes after the post-WWII partitioning of Berlin, Germany. As a 14-ft tall white wall, it acted as a canvas to many in West Berlin and a reminder of restriction for those in East Berlin. In West Berlin, artists expressed their opinions of freedom, political issues, and social justice, creating a colourful gallery of resistance and commentary lasting for miles.


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After reunification in 1990, artists around the world were invited to paint on the East side’s bare walls, creating the East Side Gallery. What had previously been a drastic difference in culture and society is now one of the world’s largest open-air galleries. 1.3 kilometers long, the gallery brought 118 artists from 21 countries together to create 106 unique pieces celebrating peace and freedom.

Dimitrij Vrubel - Lord Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love
Dimitrij Vrubel (1990) – Lord Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love. The mural depicts the infamous embrace between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker.
Thierry Noir - Hommage To The Young Generation
Thierry Noir (1990) – Hommage To The Young Generation. Thierry Noir is a French-born artist who often risked his life to paint on the wall during the active separation of East and West Berlin.
Carsten Jost - Politics is the continuation of war by other means
Carsten Jost (1990) – Politics is the continuation of war by other means. This quote comes from Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist, who emphasized that war does not suspend political intercourse, in fact, it continues no matter the means.
Dimitrij Vrubel - Thank You Andrej Sacharow
Dimitrij Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeeva (1990) – Danke, Andrej Sacharow. Andrej Sacharow was a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident, and human rights activist who stood for freedom and liberty. He passed about a few weeks after the wall fell in 1989.
Jolly Kunjappu - Dancing For Freedom
Jolly Kunjappu (1990) – Dancing For Freedom
Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek - Curriculum Vitae
Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek (1990) – Curriculum Vitae
Kani Alavi - It'S Happened in November
Kani Alavi (1990) – It’s Happened in November. The mural depicts Checkpoint Charlie the day the wall fell, with thousands of East German faces, floating from one side through to the West. The faces show different emotions in an effort to portray the mixture of confusion, joy, trepidation, and liberation felt by East Germans heading over to the West. Source: Culture Trip


In the 1970’s and 80’s, the terms ‘street art’ and ‘graffiti’ blossomed as a result of young people responding to socio-political issues by creating art in public places (similar to the examples above). Slowly, the process of creation through destruction became more popular with different experimental methods such as stenciling, spray painting, chisels, and drills. Still a commentary on socio-political issues, artists around the world caught the attention of many with unique and thought-provoking pieces.

Artists like Banksy, BLU, and Vhils use the streets as their canvas, creating commentary and awareness out of ordinary sights. The nature of a mural leaves the interpretation up to the viewer, melding art, politics, and perspectives.

BLU (2010) – Chemist, Sassari. BLU uses the perspectives and experiences of the buildings and the people surrounding them to inform his pieces. Many of his pieces deal with anti-globalization, climate change, anti-capitalistic, and human rights themes.
Vhils (2017) - Scratching the Surface project, Macau
Vhils (2013) – Scratching the Surface project, Macau. Vhils creates art through destruction by using chisels, drills, and saws to expose various depths of a wall, creating pieces that tell the story of the places history and people’s experiences. He often thinks of this as humanizing often oppressive public spaces.


Banksy (2018) – Free Zehra Dogan. Banksy often combines spray paint and stenciling with political imagery to create critical commentary for ongoing issues. This piece protests the imprisonment of Zehra Dogan, a Turkish artist and journalist serving a nearly 3 year sentence for her watercolour painting of the rubble of the Kurdish town of Nusaybin, destroyed by the Turkish army in 2015.

Over time, murals have evolved to be an expression of beliefs and experiences, lending themselves to be a face for activism, social justice, and freedom that is accessible to all.


If the idea of blending narratives with street art interests you, consider creating your own mural project at your school or in your community! The act of changing a space can be very empowering and doing it together is even better!

Perhaps you have a topic in mind already but if not, explore ideas and themes for your project through a participatory approach – understanding other’s experiences, perspectives, and issues that are important to them. As discussed with murals around the world, using current events, culture and heritage or the environment can all be a great source of inspiration.


  • Brainstorm a theme or idea
    • Pull from what you’re passionate about, a current issue or a theme like gender equality, climate change, or others
  • Gather your team
    • Invite classmates, educators or community members to help with the creation of your masterpiece
  • Secure a place for your mural with your school administration or community leaders
    • Look for blank walls that could use some art and conversation (Or maybe a ceiling? Hello, Michelangelo?)
    • If you’re having trouble finding a permanent location, play around with the idea of creating a moveable piece
  • Create a budget and timeline for your project
    • Consider the cost of supplies and any time of professionals whose expertise you may require
    • Hosting a fundraiser can help if you’re in need of funds


It’s Time to Lead a Mural Project – The Art of Education

Thrive Collective – School Murals

Start with a Book – Make a Mural Toolkit


Written by: Keana Rellinger

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