EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part III of a 3-part series within the "Rising from Rust" project looking at how public art can help revitalize a city.
If there are two things that tend to go hand-in-hand, it's abandoned structures and graffiti.
Yes, some graffiti art is meant to be destructive and offensive. However, others -- despite their illicit creation -- are a display of talent in a unique medium. The trick is how to harness this creative spirit in a community-friendly fashion.
One way Luke Beekman and Mankind Murals hopes to break new ground in Mansfield is by embracing urban art as a way to beautify – but within the rules. To do so, Beekman has developed a strong working relationship with the city's safety services.
“Nobody appreciates freelance vandalism,” said Mansfield police Chief Ken Coontz. “It’s not as much of a problem today as it has been in the past, but it is a problem.”
As of May 2018, Coontz estimated nearly 40 instances of graffiti in the city, writings or drawings illicitly painted on a wall and often within public view. However, the city has noticed that when a mural is introduced in a graffiti-popular area, the vandalism is often discouraged.
“You can go back to the 1990s where they talk about if you let one broken window go unfixed, another one eventually gets broken, and that kind of decay invites more decay,” Coontz said. “A key crime-prevention strategy is environmental design and maintenance.
“When people see that there are people that care about those specific areas, they are less likely to commit crimes in those areas.”
This idea has had some success in Moncton, the largest city in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. When the blank wall of a Moncton flea market became vulnerable to tagging with racist insults, artists were inspired to take action.
Huddle, an online news organization created to highlight entrepreneurs and economic advancement in New Brunswick, reported the success of this public art in the article, “How murals help reduce graffiti vandalism and attract people to downtown Moncton.”
Matt Kingsley Williston, co-founder of Festival Inspire, an annual event that puts 32 murals and installations by Canadian and international artists around greater Moncton, told public safety officials at an Anti-Graffiti Symposium in May that public art in the form of murals can reduce vandalism.
According to Williston, many of the walls painted through Festival Inspire have seen little to no graffiti painted on them. That's in stark contrast to walls that are empty.
“People that are putting up socially conscious and community sensitive murals in this town are fighting the same fight,” Williston said. “It’s to squash the vandalism that’s going on and get art and culture in cities -- and to have a fun, colorful, artistic place to live.”
The idea of commissioning mural artists in an attempt to reduce graffiti is not a new one. A research article titled “The Mural as Graffiti Deterrence,” published in May 2006, detailed an experiment where one half of a wall that was known to attract graffiti was painted with a colorful mural, while the other half was left blank.
The blank side of the wall was subject to significantly higher levels of graffiti during the course of the experiment than the mural section.
Beekman hopes to model the same idea with a “free art” space where urban art can exist, but with boundaries. Both Coontz and Mansfield Safety-Service Director Lori Cope are on board.
“We try to include them and recognize they have a skill and it is art, but we want them to funnel it to the right area,” Cope said.
Coontz noted there was a big difference between graffiti and art, and stated his appreciation for the public art projects led by Mankind Murals.
“The business owners downtown, along with the administration, have done a great job at revitalizing Mansfield downtown, and I think if we have more things like that it will help get people out of their cars and get them walking around,” Coontz said. “The visual improvement from just turning a blank wall into something beautiful is great.”
In addition to a free art space dedicated to urban art, Beekman has quite a few other tricks up his sleeve to encourage public art in Mansfield, from special invisible paint that only reveals itself when it rains, to paint specific to pavement in order to cover offensive graffiti on the bike trail.
He also has big plans for the future of art in Mansfield. Decades-old murals that already exist in the city are on track to be revitalized, as well as new historic-themed murals to be created. Mansfield could host its own mural tour someday, he said.
In the way of a filmmaker, Beekman has vision, and another lesson learned from the industry: collaboration -- especially when it comes to involving the entire community.
“I see a ton of opportunity, and know a ton of artists,” Beekman said. “Being able to watch something go from a dilapidated state to a renewed state, that sense of revitalization is something everyone has an affinity for.
“It gives a person a good feeling, so if they can take part in any way, shape or form, you’re just opening the doors for more beautification and revitalization coming directly from the citizens."