Ethics of Phoenix Mural Project
As founder and director of Phoenix Mural Project I’m engaged in lots of different kinds of communities within the city: property owners, street artists, graffiti writers, community members, civic leaders, cops… you name it. I’m a public artist, too, but I don’t paint murals. I started the project in 2016 when I moved to Arizona. I wanted to explore the city via its street art, but there were no resources available to help me find them. So, I set out — at first on foot — to photograph as many as I could find. In the process, I figured out who the local artists are, where and what they paint, and who they collaborate with. I started following them on Instagram, where street artists often connect with each other and with their admirers. All it takes to be a travel writer is a camera and an Instagram account.
Eventually, I had a big collection of geotagged images, which I used to create a publicly accessible Google Map. Today the map has waypoints for around 700 images and has been viewed over 80,000 times. As an outside observer, the task of mapping images is easy. And as a traveler — or tourist — in my new city, I unknowingly followed a long pattern of people documenting new places from a relatively objective point of view. According to scholars who study travel and travel writing, authors typically start their narrative with a wide angle view of a scene — the big picture, first impressions, and aesthetics (Spurr, 1993). I didn’t interpret what I found right away, and I didn’t really think about my own relationship to the environments and artworks I encountered. I simply collected images, names, and points on a map. Did I demonstrate the gaze of a colonizer as I worked? Spurr argues that the colonizer’s way of looking claims ownership over everything within view. Once I collected a mural and put it on my Google Map, was it mine? Even now, I use the word “collected” to describe my activities. Have I actually collected anything? What have I actually taken when I snap a photo? The Google Map is mine — at least I created it. But, none of these things actually belongs to me.
In the case of murals in Phoenix, the street art left open to public view is intended to be seen. Artists and mural hunters play in a kind of symbiotic relationship that both promotes the artists’ careers and satisfies the traveler’s need for adventure. Murals are novel, visible, and accessible, and a traveler doesn’t need to write much more than photo captions to narrate their explorations of foreign places on social media. Many of the street artists I know rely on the visibility of social media to build their reputations and their client base. Indeed, my hobby of visiting mural sites, capturing images, mapping them, and sharing about it on social media allowed me to ease into real-life connections and friendships within the Phoenix urban arts community.
As a mural hunter, I don’t even have to leave my city to find foreignness right under my nose. But the domestic traveler can easily sustain colonialism in their own city, and it’s a concern I take seriously. As a newcomer to Phoenix, I was unknown to the local communities I became a part of. I wait for invitations before I enter someone else’s space. I didn’t — and don’t — see myself as an ethnographer or anthropologist. I see myself first as a fellow artist and friend. I collect images of art in urban spaces, and I record artists’ stories, as gestures of love and respect.
Fred Dust (2021), a renowned social designer, recently published a book about how to design meaningful communication. He argues that you can’t have empathy or true connection without first developing love for the person/people you’re engaging with (Getting Smart, 2021). My top priority is to use Phoenix Mural Project as a vehicle for loving others through my support for public art, especially murals. And for me, it’s not just about any murals or any muralists. My focus is on lifting up and celebrating Arizona artists first.
I’ve hosted two editions of Phoenix Mural Festival, in 2018 and 2021. Despite receiving inquiries from artists all over the world, I limited the event to artists in Arizona or who already have strong ties to the arts community in Phoenix. There’s no reason to bring in outside artists when our own local artists are highly skilled. Plus, they know the community, they care about their community, and we all want to contribute to a collective sense of place across the city. More than 80 local artists participated in both events. I hope and believe that these events were successful because I’m so careful to understand and respect who they are and where they come from. It isn’t about me; it’s about community; it’s about love.
Dust, F. (2021). Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication. Harper Collins.
Foushee, D. (2016–). Phoenix Mural Project. Accessed from https://www.phoenixmurals.com/
Getting Smart Podcast (2021). Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication. Accessed from https://www.gettingsmart.com/2021/05/fred-dust-on-making-conversation-seven-essential-elements-of-meaningful-communication/
Spurr, D. (1993). Surveillance. The Rhetoric of Empire. Duke University Press.