The history of mural painting dates to the Upper Paleolithic times. According to the book Mural Painting as a Medium: Technique, Representation, and Liturgy, by Péter Bokody, ancient murals from the Middle Ages were executed on dry plaster, but after hundreds of years, the art evolved and became well-known thanks to Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco, Mexican muralists who started painting walls of public buildings in the 1920s with nationalistic, social and political messages. These messages ring true today.
The artist’s creations impacted not only Mexico, but also Latin America and the United States, as well as the rest of the world. Inspired by these three painters, the Chicano art movement grew into an explosion of color and feelings that covered walls and opened the door to a cultural shift and the establishment of a brilliant Latino in the US.
Today, the group making a similar visual impact in the community is Los Muralistas de El Puente. The latter is a collective that is beautifying Brooklyn’s plain old walls with mesmerizing and intricate murals detailing our culture, challenges, and victories while including relevant messages and thought-provoking imagery.
BELatina News contacted one of the Los Muralistas de El Puente community artists, Joe Matunis, who is also an activist and educator in the Los Sures community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY (a profoundly Hispanic area) since 1990. Matunis shared not only how did the movement start, but also sent a message to aspiring artists.
What is Los Muralistas de El Puente? How and why did it start?
Los Muralistas is an inter-generational artist collective developed within El Puente and serving the community of Los Sures (Williamsburg Brooklyn’s Southside) since 1990. Before founding Los Muralistas in 1990, Matunis trained in the practice of Community Mural Making with Chicago Public Art Group, The Environmental Art Program at Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow Scotland, and The Mural Arts Program at Majarajah Siyajirao University in Baroda, India. Los Muralistas was founded on the principles of Community Mural Making in which the lead muralist facilitates a process by which community members design and create public murals expressing topics they’ve identified as a concern or interest. Los Muralistas also serves as pre-professional training for youth. Through year-round training that often culminates in paid summer mural projects, community youth gain the skills and experience to facilitate community organizing, fact-gathering and analysis, collective design practices, and all the steps necessary to plan and create a large scale public mural. Many members stay with the group for four or more years and some go on to become community muralists on their own.
What is the mission of Los Muralistas de El Puente?
The group engages youth and community members in intensive training, coaching, and mentoring in the arts and the tradition of mural painting. Many youth members remain in the group for several years, joining as early adolescents and developing into mentoring roles for other youth. Under the direction of Los Muralistas founder Matunis, Los Muralistas has created more than 30 community murals that depict the challenges, victories, hopes, and dreams of the community through powerful, thought-provoking and masterful imagery and socially relevant messages.
The work of Los Muralistas is grounded in the principles and mission of its home organization El Puente, a 30-year old community human rights institution that promotes leadership for peace and justice through the engagement of members (youth and adult) in the arts, education, scientific research, wellness, and environmental action. El Puente integrates the diverse activities and community campaigns of its Center for Arts and Culture, Green Light District Initiative, four neighborhood Leadership Centers, and nationally recognized public high school, El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice.
Who’s part of Los Muralistas de El Puente? How can artists be part of this group?
Over the past 30 years hundreds of youth, primarily from the Brooklyn Communities of Williamsburg and Bushwick, have been members of Los Muralistas. There are typically 10-15 active members at any given time. Anyone who expresses an interest can join the group. Being a “good artist” is not a pre-requisite. Through our intensive training program, many skills can be developed and improved upon. There are many aspects to community mural-making that do not necessarily require a high level of artistic ability at the onset. It is necessary, however, to be willing to work collectively and to do all aspects of the work – from organizing to building scaffolding to cleaning brushes to speaking to the public. There is a cadre of adult Muralistas who lead projects who have been trained in Community Mural making through participation in the group. There are around 10 of us who work together co-facilitating projects as often as possible and support one another in a number of ways.
How many murals can we find around New York and where can we see them?
Our murals are primarily located in the communities of Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. Our website lists many of our past projects. (We’re working on updating it – the past four years have been very busy for us!)
Over the past 30 years, we have created over 30 murals in addition to countless banners, puppets, and placards for community demonstrations and scenery for many theatrical productions. In Williamsburg, we currently have three murals in Domino Park. One of our largest murals, Orgullo de Los Sures, can be found on MS 50 on the corner of S. 3rd and Roebling. A good place to see our murals in Bushwick is the corner of Woodbine St. and Knickerbocker Ave. We have two murals in that area.
How did Los Muralistas de El Puente select the imagery and its message?
As practitioners of Community Mural making, we get our imagery and messages from the communities we work with through an intensive process of community workshops and collective design sessions. By focusing our mural making primarily in the communities in which we live we are able to develop long term projects in which we’re able to collaborate with El Puente on community organizing efforts to create murals that address community concerns such as asthma and celebrate the history and promote the preservation ofthe Latinx community of Los Sures.
How long does it take to create a mural?
We have designed and painted murals in as little as eight hours. Typical projects take anywhere from several weeks to several years to gather the information, conduct community workshops, and create a collaborative design. Depending on the size of the project painting can take anywhere from one day to two months. Because we like to value the labor of our members, we typically create our large scale projects in the summer. We raise money to pay all of our youth and adult members, although we welcome, and always have many, walk-on volunteers. Those projects typically begin with design sessions in late winter and take 6 weeks to paint in the summer. It typically takes two years from the time a concept is put forth, a site is identified and funding is secured for a mural to be completed.
How’s the overall reception of the community with the murals?
There are two important communities impacted by the creation of community murals. The first is the muralists themselves. Community mural making is unique in the wide range of skills it develops and experiences it provides. Many skills are not readily developed in other aspects of life but have profound impacts on the future lives of youth participants. I often describe community mural making as equal parts community organizing, art, and construction work. Because each project requires hundreds of hours of participation, and many youths participate over multiple years, over time the youth muralists gain a deep knowledge of the skills and practices that they pass on to the new members.
Pedagogically, the processing of information to create original ideas is at the highest level. Teaching others this knowledge demonstrates mastery of those skills. These skills include research into the topic the mural will address. Many times this process includes conducting oral histories with community members, doing shared readings and discussions, and consulting with experts and other community residents. There is a wide range of drawing skills that are introduced and practiced during the design phase. There is a very big emphasis on collective drawing and critiques of drawing throughout the process, leading to design by consensus.
On the mural site, muralists learn to safely build and work on a scaffold, to mix paint, paint using a variety of techniques, maintain the equipment, communicate with and instruct the public about the content of the mural, and to work effectively as a team. By the end of a typical summer project, each muralist has spent over 200 hours thinking about and working with the topic of the mural, doing physically challenging and exhausting work day after day, communicating with the public on a constant basis, and experiencing what happens when the group works together and support one another – the creation of a complex, sophisticated work of art that’s valued by the community and will impact the community for years to come. It’s an amazing eye-opener to the youth to just how powerful and capable they are.
Our murals have always been very well received by the community. I think that because we all live in the community in which we create our work it gives the work a level of authenticity that can’t be faked. The issues and histories we gather, study, analyze, and depict are our stories and issues. Because we typically spend six weeks on the street working on the painting, community members have the opportunity to observe and communicate with the artists. Because our artists have designed the murals collectively they are all well versed in all areas of the content – the storyline, the people and events depicted, the symbolism. Community members are typically very proud and touched that their culture, history, struggles, and lives have been valued enough to warrant so much love and effort. It’s a really great opportunity for the older generations to experience the youth doing something so powerful and positive and for the youth to be recognized by their community.
Besides mural painting, what other projects are produced by Los Muralistas de El Puente?
As part of the El Puente community, we spend the time when we’re not creating murals to create art in support of community cultural celebrations, such as Dia de Los Muertos and El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos. We also work in conjunction with El Puente’s Green Light District and CADRE to create banners, large scale puppets and placards for demonstrations that over the years have included issues such as immigration, police brutality, and the environment. We also work with El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, El Puente’s public high school to create projects and collaborations that investigate issues affecting our community and to study and celebrate the histories and culture of our communities.
Can you please send a message of hope to aspiring artists?
I’m a community artist, so I’ll stick to what I know. To aspiring community artists I would say this: make art where you are with the people you’re with – don’t wait for the right time or place. Meet the people on your block, in your neighborhood. Volunteering is a good way to enter and become part of a community. Be open to possibilities – look around you, what needs to get done? If there’s something you want to do, but don’t know how to find someone who’s doing and ask them how to get involved. If there’s a skill you need, invest in yourself, and get the training. You are much more useful as a community artist if you have taken the time to master your craft.
Respect your community; don’t have a giant ego; don’t make wack art because you think you’re improving your community. Be humble, be patient, be reliable, be generous. Listen; don’t believe or insist that you’re an expert. Don’t force your experience, values, or aesthetic on others. Ask how you can help. Demonstrate your value by being useful. Expand your definition of what it means to be an artist. Artists need time and space – New York City isn’t the only place to make art. If you’re working like a dog to live in a closet and don’t have the time or space to be an artist, move. You only live once, don’t waste it.
Enjoy below photos of their art.