The Social Role of Public Art: In Conversation with Richard Wilson

Photo by Marcello Bellini, c/o Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson is a London-based fine artist and muralist. Wilson has painted commissioned murals in London, Madeira, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and currently has work on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK. 

As a London-based artist, you seem to have a real affection for Detroit’s cultural history, how did that come to be?

Well my first time in Detroit was 2018, and up until that point I didn’t know too much aside from the music I love that happens to be born out of the city. Typically of course I knew about the Motor industry, Motown and other often told stories, and was aware and still get it from some people a sense of surprise if I tell somebody I would like to live there.

But overall I’d say like most things with me it’s nearly always all about the music, I can be a bit geeky about the music I love and where its made and who made it. I’ve been buying records since 1990 and reading sleeve notes and back covers, seeing that records were made in Detroit, or NYC, Philly, Chicago, Baltimore I guess has given me something in my heart for those places before even having been there. I borrowed/stole a record from my older brothers record collection in the late 80’s, Rhythm is Rhythm, the one with Strings of Life on it. The centre label has ‘Made in Detroit’ on it. That’s likely the first time the name of the city became relevant to me.

What do you think is the social role(s) of a mural? Is it universal all across time and space  or specific to the historical moment and/or site of the mural? 

For me it’s vital that cities have art on their walls, and graffiti too. I think most people seeing graffiti, tags etc feel scared of it and think its unsightly because they don’t know what it means or its hard to read.It might look like a scribble and I do understand that mindset but it’s vital to recognize that if you live in a city and for example fawn over a Kaws statue please also understand it comes from that tag on a wall you might want to see painted over.

Maybe that’s a little off topic but it’s a really important part of the whole mural/street art movement for me. Even if we have many muralists that don’t come from a graffiti background, graffiti paved the way imho. Of course their were murals being painted before graffiti/subway art culture, but graffiti has turned it into a bigger industry than it probably ever was. More specifically with regard to the social role, I think it depends on the image that gets painted. Many street artists have a style and image concept they repeat in cities worldwide that has no relevance to the place it’s in.

In those cases I could suggest the role that painting has in a community may not always be positive, often it’s the sign of feared impending gentrification. And then that can go all the way to a mural that means something to the city or place it’s in, it can tell a story, it can reflect on the history surrounding it and become a landmark. I would also say the same for example about some old graffiti pieces down Dequindre cut. I look at those as moments in history, now fading but still standing. The above examples and everything in between plays some role, our definition of wether thats positive or negative is likely just based on who we are.

A couple years ago Ringer ran an article that explored Detroit’s street art/mural economy, and focused on the ways in which street art has been utilized as a tool of development. I wanted to share a pull quote from it: “street art is now a business, not just a passion project, and artists are entrepreneurs. Though they’re finding more opportunities than ever to paint, disentangling the joy of the work from the complexity of its impacts becomes tougher as the art itself becomes more valuable to more people.” As a muralist, do you reflect on the effects that a mural may have on a neighborhood in terms of development/gentrification?

I think it’s not easy to judge an artists reasons for painting what they paint in certain places.

We can look at certain artists from the outside and assume they are just doing their thing, painting a wall, selling prints and canvas off the back of that notoriety with no care about the environment they are painting in.

Of course it is big business now, some street artists work now sells for 6 and 7 figure sums. And just like the fine art market at that point maybe the subject matter is arguably irrelevant as it’s the Artists name that holds the appeal. Some wont care about the passion and meaning, some will care for it with their life above the business side. I might be a good case model I’m a white guy from London and my first time in Detroit was 2018. I painted in Eastern Market and I know from local friends how much that area has changed, how rents have tripled, businesses had to move out and so on. I’ve come to Detroit and painted 2 walls, from what I’ve seen and felt the city really likes them.

The city has welcomed me and made me feel home. The paintings I did are what I breathe, maybe if my paintings had a different subject matter, or I had a different energy I wouldn’t have been made to feel welcomed. When I question myself about the image I’m painting and where it is, I try and just see where my heart is. If it felt cynical I wouldn’t do it. I really believe the people who live in a place know, they know and can feel where someone is coming from. Outsiders coming into a place and painting walls is often cited as the starting point of rents going up. I’m not sure paint on a wall can ever solely be the reason for gentrification but of course it can be a sign amongst many other things.

In your mind whom does public art belongs to? Is it the property of the muralist, the patron, the public?

It’s complex. There are fine lines and grey areas and rules for one and rules for another differing with each wall, each artist and each community. If a large car manufacturer worth billions uses a wall as part of a backdrop for their advertising, should they pay the artist, and the wall owner, maybe the people in the city too? In that case of course it doesn’t belong to the people, and actually you find some big corporations wouldn’t even want to pay the artist or wall owner.

The fact it’s viewable for free doesn’t mean it’s free for use. I think thats a simple rule to define it, but then what if the building in the background of an ad doesn’t have art on it? Should the corporation making the ad find the original architect and pay them? Of course that doesn’t happen. It’s very arguable the ad is ‘using’ the art backdrop to score some cool points, maybe the same could be said of a building used without art on it. I think it’s down to each artist and wall owner to define it how they see fit.

The Stevie wall I painted has been used by various large outfits in Detroit without asking me permission. For me that’s ok because actually they should be asking Stevie first. I don’t see it as ‘mine’. I often get asked to make prints of it but for me thats a definite no. I don’t think I should profit from Stevie’s image without his permission or inclusion. And taking it further Stevie never gave me permission to paint him, maybe I should have paid him to use his image? All rhetorical questions here.

The whole topic of ‘property’ especially relating to financial matters is so subjective and specific to each aspect: wall, image, artist, wall owner, community. So many variables each time I think it’s hard to be definitive of whats right or wrong, personally I just follow what feels right to me. There are many double standards and hypocrisies in the street art/mural scene.

I think the most important part is we just keep painting!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You may like