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Street art, like murals, have always been fixtures in cities as an outlet of expression for local artists across the globe. Such artwork is also presenting numerous destinations with a valuable asset: beacons that can attract large numbers of visitors.
Even in this very abnormal year, mural tours are still being conducted regularly as viable outdoor and socially distanced activities —with many of the new works inspired by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Currently, walking tours are one of the safest things to do because you can keep a good distance from everyone else, wear a mask and be outside,” said Jenny Benson, the co-founder and director of Walking Tours in Scotland. “So, we’re lucky because even in the highest tier of lockdown in Scotland, we can still run our tours.”
And such tours often see a lot of guests annually. “In a normal year,” said Ellen Soloff, the director of tours and merchandise at Mural Arts Philadelphia, a program that was launched in 1984 to help expunge graffiti and showcase the city’s artists. “We see about 12,000 tour guests from both public and private tours. We have many from the tri-state area as well as tourists and conventioneers from across the country and the world.” Meanwhile, Soloff estimates that 600 guests came on Mural Arts tours from mid-July to mid-November.
Philadelphia is far from alone in welcoming large numbers of international guests on mural tours. Oscar Fernandez, the communications manager of Madrid-based tour operator Civitatis, estimates in 2019, 85 percent of guests on its Mexico City Mural Tour come from outside of Mexico.
Not surprisingly, some of those who have been recently restricted from conducting normal outdoor tours have resorted to displaying murals virtually. “They have been somewhat popular,” Soloff said. “But since we are competing with so much virtual programming, it is hard to get a big market. Word of mouth is spreading the word though and we have past guests that we are marketing directly.”
Fair to say, a well-run mural tour can attract a lot of visitors— even if those running such excursions were initially unaware of that. “I didn’t know there was a demand for tours in Wynwood when I started this company in 2016,” admitted Pedro Rodriguez, the owner and co-founder of Miami’s Best Graffiti Guide, an artist-owned and operated tour company that features murals located in the city’s Wynwood neighborhood. “I thought for the integrity of the artists and the neighborhood, it would be a good idea to explain this to people, tourists, and locals alike. I had no idea that people were so curious to know the backstory of this art and culture.”
So what makes a good mural tour?
First, start with the obvious. “Of course, you need to see good art on a mural tour. That’s the key,” Scotland’s Benson asserted. “However, we believe it’s equally important to gain an understanding of the context of the art itself and the art sense on a mural tour. Why are the artists doing this type of art? Is there a collective or are they individuals? How do the city council and the locals feel about it? It’s important to answer questions like these as well.”
Another obvious key to the success of any tour: ingenious guides. “Without them, we are nothing,” said Danny Pavlopoulos, the founder of the Spade & Palacio Tours in Montreal, when asked how crucial they are to the company’s success.
“It’s important that all my guides are real Montrealers,” he added. “Walk these streets, hang out in those parks, stop for quick kisses to friends along the way. People want to connect to the vibe of the city and some suburban boomer won’t give you that.”
Many tourism businesses view mural tours as a vehicle for educating guests about history. That’s certainly a goal for Civitatis. “Contemporary Mexican art can’t be understood without these murals,” Fernandez responded when asked how important it is for guests to learn about the history of Mexican muralism.
A desire to learn more about history is a significant attraction for guests on Viator’s Bloody Sunday and Bogside Derry Murals Walking Tours, which showcases art documenting the city of Derry’s history and role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “As the conflict in the North is such a recent story, people are very keen to know the whole story,” noted Gleann Doherty, a guide on the tour. “I hope that guests get a better understanding of the events that took place in the north of Ireland. I always make sure that guests have a good understanding before moving to the next [mural].”
However, numerous muralists aren’t living in the past, especially as many are creating works of art touching on pressing modern-day issues—such as “We Who Believe in Freedom Rest Unit Comes,” a 60-foot high mural in Rutland, Vermont created by artist Lopi Laroe to pay tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’ve heard from young Black kids and people of color in this town that they do experience intense racism on an individual level,” she said. So the artist took it upon herself to create a large image of “a beautiful young black girl that would make them feel seen and valued.”
Meanwhile, numerous mural tours aren’t living in the past. Several of them have featured works of art concerning two of 2020’s biggest stories: the Black Lives Matter movement and coronavirus. Pavlopoulos has already witnessed this: During Montreal’s MURAL festival (which Spade & Palacio promotes to its guests), the Windsor, Ontario-based muralist Denial spoke to a group about his timely mural featuring a black woman crying with her hands and the words “Sorry is not enough” and a maple leaf plastered on her face.
Likewise, Mural Arts Philadelphia has not neglected such happenings. “Some new murals and programs have been created around this issue and have been included in tours and tour guides talk about the programs/efforts that are new,” Soloff responded when asked how the Black Lives Matter movement has influenced the work the program has done in recent months.
One of those murals is Crown. Dedicated in August, the mural is described as “a response to the on-going protests supporting Black Lives Matter and the fight to end systemic racism.”
“Surrounded by the contemporary iconography of the BLM movement and marches, she leads the charge in the city’s continued fight against systemic racism,” explained the mural’s description of the mural on the program’s website. “The figures come together to form a crown in the age of coronavirus.”
Speaking of the coronavirus, Mural Arts Philadelphia is doing its part to make sure guests and locals stay safe in the midst of the pandemic. A collaboration with four artists, the program partnered with the Broad Street Ministry to launch a project named Wash Your Hands.
Four murals placed around the city provide advice from the Center for Disease Control about how to say safe.
“This project highlights the larger, ongoing issues of homelessness and public health that many Philadelphians live with every day—and is a direct action to help in crisis, a reminder of how interlocked our lives are today, and always,” Mural Arts stated.
Finally, while the Glasgow Street Art Tour has faced struggles just like everyone else due to Covid-19 (“Of course, we’ve reduced the amount of people,” Benson admitted), the company can treat its guests to some pandemic-related artwork. Including works by a muralist known as The Rebel Bear.
Technically illegal (he snuck out of his residence in the middle of the night during lockdown to paint), he has created murals tied to the coronavirus, such as a couple pulling down their masks to kiss and a doctor in blue protective masks and gloves forming her hands in the shape of a heart. The latter work was dedicated to all front-line medical workers.
As for whether all of her company’s guests see The Rebel Bear’s works, “It depends on the guide entirely, so we can’t say [they] will be on every tour,” Benson acknowledged. “But our guides adapt the tour all the time so some of these will be on the tours for the foreseeable feature.”
A future that will seemingly see large numbers of travelers treated to murals addressing contemporary issues.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story made one reference to Civitas TK as Oscar Gonzalez. His last name is Fernandez.