Painting Over the Stigma of Street Art

Street art is a common sight throughout urban areas yet street art has various connotations ranging from graffiti tagged along the sides of rural sections to murals painted on developed city buildings. With these urban art installations becoming a popular trend in many cities the question arises: what exactly is the difference between graffiti and street art?

Graffiti often marks the streets and alleyways of cities, making them seem menacing and threatening. Associated with gangs and crime, graffiti has a long-standing connotation with violence and hostility while also being perceived as devaluations of a city. Graffiti has now become a form a self-expression, often carrying a progressive message or spirited statement, and is becoming recognized as a form of art. Big, bright, bold, and beautiful murals have started popping up in cities and towns more often; many people have taken a liking to these art installations, with street art murals becoming a popular background for candid Instagram pictures. Whether the purpose is purely for aesthetic intentions or to convey a passionate message, pieces spray painted onto walls of city buildings and shops have now started to draw the eye of people passing by rather than driving them away.

So what is the difference between graffiti and street art?

Graffiti is often word-based while street art is more image-based. The traditional preconception of graffiti comes from vandals and delinquents marking or tagging buildings with their street names or gangs they’re associated with. Art teacher Josey Richter provides some context on the similarities and differences between the two.

“I’d say probably number one: permission. When we do murals at school and there’s professional murals around town—I mean, these people get paid and there’s permission given,” Richter said. “And then, I think a certain level of skill. I’m sure there’s some graffiti art that’s quite skilled but it’s not as common, whereas the murals around Petaluma and San Francisco and Casa, there’s expectations of a skill level there that people would react to; for example our [mural] that Mr. Backman hired for by the band building, the Maxfield Bala. I mean he’s a professional muralist compared to someone who managed to get spray paint at a Michael’s.”

Perhaps the most critical question: what influence does graffiti and street art have on surrounding communities? Prior to the revolution of satirical and statemental installations and aesthetically pleasing, “Instagrammable” pieces of street art, graffiti was mainly seen as a bad influence, along with gangs and rap. Richter explains the effects of vandalism.

“I think [street art] has a negative effect when it’s done without permission and without skill—it encourages more vandalism,” said Richter. “If you’re able to keep your school or business clean and neat, it makes people respect your space more and as soon as that starts to fall apart, people think that you don’t care and so then they keep adding to it… And so I think the same thing happens with public spaces, whether it’s vandalism or graffiti or just disrepair.”

But now that urban art installations serve a greater purpose than just gang association, how exactly does street art benefit the public community? Senior Samveda Rukmangadhan shares how school murals affected her.

“Two years ago, when Mr. Pillsbury retired, I remember someone painted a mural of him on the library wall and every time I see that I get inspired by the things that Mr. Pillsbury taught me as I was a student of his last year for Academic Decathlon and it reminds me of the lessons I learned from him,” said Rukmangadhan.

The stigma of violent and explicit graffiti sprawled all over city buildings and urban areas deterring people from downtown areas have now developed into a medium that allows artists’ voices to be heard and shared in a community. Street art has developed from words and names and people tagging sides of buildings that degrade urban areas to elaborate and sophisticated murals that provide pleasant aesthetics and style for the public.

Memorial Mural: While passing through the halls, it is easy to watch one’s feet or simply stare in the direction of the destination. However, there are a few spots on campus that remind students that art can be available to them in many ways. From the vibrantly painted “CASA MUSIC” mural above the band room to the quotes painted on the science wing, there are many expressions of student life that adorn the beige walls of the school. However, one that has special meaning to many is the mural that was painted by Ricky Watts and Justin Balzerini.

This mural was painted in hopes of honoring and was dedicated to, as it reads, “our friends and classmates who can no longer be here.” But most specific, it was dedicated to Adam Westcott, who was killed in a car crash in 1997 at the age of 16. The driver of the car lost control of the vehicle while reportedly trying to simulate a roller coaster ride, and the right side of her Honda Accord struck a telephone pole, the cause of Westcott’s death. Only months after that May 25 incident, the driver was convicted of misdemeanor manslaughter. This mural serves as a reminder for all students at the school of those who walked the same paths every day and is a clear expression of sorrow by Westcott’s fellow classmates. Although this mural is painted and written with large graffiti-style lettering, it is clear that it is more than simply a drawing on a wall. Just like any other medium of art, this mural is a pure expression of emotion, its location and size providing a wonderful tribute to Westcott’s memory.

This mural serves as a reminder for all students at the school of those who walked the same paths every day and is a clear expression of sorrow by Westcott’s fellow classmates. Although this mural is painted and written with large graffiti-style lettering, it is clear that it is more than simply a drawing on a wall. Just like any other medium of art, this mural is a pure expression of emotion, its location and size providing a wonderful tribute to Westcott’s memory.

Petaluma Pride Paintings: You’re driving along East Washington street into downtown Petaluma. You cross the bridge across the river and turn left towards Brewsters Beer Garden. There, on the steel walls of previously abandoned warehouses and factories, is a vivid mural of Petaluma’s iconic chicken.

The mural was painted by Maxfield Bala Creative, an art and design company based in the Bay Area. Along with the mural of the chicken, Bala Creative was requisitioned by the Petaluma Public Art Committee to paint several electric boxes around downtown. The mural is part of the Water Street Beautification Project. This project is meant to draw people and commerce to the Petaluma riverside with beautiful pieces of street art. The momentum of the project has been nearly stagnant due to reportedly underwhelming and occasionally bizarre submissions for the proposed art. Many statues, sculptures, and paintings have been disqualified by the Art Committee, but Bala Creative’s work was chosen to add to the rich ambiance of Petaluma.

The mural in question is composed of brilliant and bold colors of blue, red, yellow, green, and purple. It features a chicken and eggs that are quintessential to the character of Petaluma and casts a welcoming and decorative tone on the otherwise barren corner of town.

“I remember going downtown [last year]. Every day, I would see [the mural] progressing into what it is now,” said junior Montserrat Villagomez Avalos. “I’d say downtown Petaluma is the nicest thing about Petaluma. You’ve got a lot going on[….]Bringing in more art would probably bring in more people because they want to see it.”

“I think [street art downtown] is good because it is about spreading humanity and giving citizens a chance to connect with something larger,” said junior Cece Aden, who agrees that the art adds to her downtown experience.

The Maxfield Bala chicken mural and many others, some commissioned by the Water Street Beautification Project, enrich the beauty of a downtown area previously offering only brick and steel walls as a backdrop to Petaluma’s bustling businesses. They also offer stellar photo opportunities for students.

Bala’s Storage Bins: Standing off to the side of classrooms, imposing over the landscape around it, a mural stands tall: watching over the singers, actors, and musicians who travel by it. Depicting the items which optimize the school and the programs its most well-known for, the mural adds further to the artistic appeal of the campus. The mural itself is comprised of vibrant oranges, golds, and greens, silhouetting school mascots, historic Petaluma landmarks, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The larger than life artistic representation of the Bay Area and the area the school comprises within it was commissioned by the school’s administration, unveiled at the beginning of the school year and brings a much-needed blast of color to the weed-covered fields nearby. It was created in early 2018 by Maxfield Bala Creative: a renowned art and design company whose other pieces of prominent work are featured all over Petaluma and other cities near it in the North Bay Area.

Bala Creative is based out of San Francisco and specializes in murals; hence their work is not solely limited to works of purely public art but also murals for both commercial and advertisement purposes as well. One of their most famous pieces of street art is even in Petaluma: the towering chicken mural which dominates the landscape of downtown and the sides of formerly abandoned buildings.