This summer, we received a visit from my husband’s family who had planned on coming down long before the current pandemic resulted in limited accessibility to some places, as well as temporary or permanent closure to others.
This included, in many cities, some of the most popular places people like to take friends and family. Since the last time my family visited was filled with a few speed bumps, I wanted to make sure there was at least something memorable they could enjoy in the short couple of days they spent with us, particularly with so many places inaccessible this year.
I remembered some of the things I discovered on our own family’s summer “Staycation” findings, which included our area’s growing mural, graffiti art, and public art scene. The next summer, when we visited another city, we decided to explore their public arts scene as well. It was a great, colorful, and cost-free experience.
Ergo, we decided to take them on a public art/mural tour of the city, and couldn’t believe it took a summer of social distancing and shutdowns to do this. Of course, this was a perfect idea for this year, as we could easily get away from other people, and get family photos, safely and sans masks, but a mural and public art tour or any city is something great to show out-of-town visitors, or attend yourself, anytime.
It is, for the most part, free. Other than the cost of gas, there really is not cost to viewing public art. It is no surprise that “public art” pieces like murals are often in public places that are easily accessible to most everyone. These could be on the side of commercial or government buildings, built in the middle of large open space areas, plazas or parks, or along highways and main streets where they can view from the vehicle. In our city, there is even some old, neon or painted commercial art created for local businesses with a long history in the community that have become local landmarks.
You can customize your tour. Many cities have brochures for public art tours, and there are plenty of online guides either put together by official tourism sites or by independent travel bloggers showing where some of the coolest mural and public art locations are in each community. If you’re short on planning time, these have some easily routes to follow. However, there is always room to add extra stops, omit things that may not interest you, or find different scenic ways to get to certain stops. You don’t have to start at set time or follow along with a docent. Make setting your own custom self-guided tour part of the adventure.
You support local artists. These artists who create large scale murals and street art are more than just “graffiti” artists. I had one artist who worked on creating large scale art on several underpass pillar supports in our city tell me the difference between graffiti and a mural is “getting permission” to paint it. Once these artists get permission, they can spend some significant money and time on creating memorable, original art. Over the past few years, many of these artists have included not only their name on their art, but a social media link, such as Instagram or Facebook. This makes it easy not only to make sure to share the name of the artist when you post an image of their work, it helps you find where you can purchase other art by the artist. We have one painting in our home of a “punk rock” Mexican Revolution era soldier hat is a small-scale version of a popular mural in the city. These are working artists, and they’ve given us something free to enjoy. Don’t miss an opportunity to support them back.
Large-scale art is ideal for great photo ops. Some of our own favorite souvenirs from trips have been family photos. Some of these murals are incredible on their own, and when you put family in it, it helps to show the full scale size of the piece. Sometimes, there are even “interactive” elements like painted wings to stand near or images meant to look like animated backgrounds. A favorite we found this summer was a mural artist who created art of giant Mylar balloons, with ropes attached to wall. Those who come across the mural can hold onto the ropes to get the full effect. This spot has become a popular photo location, but visitors can still get it all to themselves for a family photo.
It will be a completely unique experience in every city. Every community has its own artists, art styles, and architecture. The types and places for public art will always be different, no matter where you visit. Whereas local museums and visitors center aim to show you the history of an area, the public art scene will give you the local creative heartbeat. Even if you just visit one or two spots, it will make your visit to any city more colorful.
Later on, when the tourist opportunities open up, and social distancing becomes a distant memory, the creative, customizable outings that public art tours offers should always be on your “to do” list.