A usage that was new to me, suddenly George Floyd-prominent in the news. Two examples, with the usage boldfaced:

— “Watch: ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural painted on streets leading to White House”, caption for an NBC News video accompanying the story “D.C. Mayor Bowser has ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted on street leading to White House: The act was intended to honor protesters who had peacefully assembled earlier this week” by Rebecca Shabad and Dartunorro Clarkon on 6/5/20.

— from the Valley News Live site (KVLY-TV, Red River Valley News in Fargo ND): “DC paints huge Black Lives Matter mural near White House”, with this photo from CNN:


Murals usually go on walls. This one — surprise — is on a roadway.

The simple story, from NOAD:

noun mural: [a] a painting or other work of art executed directly on a wall. adjective [attributive] of, like, or relating to a wall: a mural escarpment. [b] Medicine relating to or occurring in the wall of a body cavity or blood vessel: mural thrombosis. ORIGIN late Middle English: from French, from Latin muralis, from murus ‘wall’. … ([in the] mid 16th century) the sense ‘placed or executed on a wall’ arose, reflected in the current noun use (dating from the early 20th century).

And that depends on what we mean by wall. Again, the simple story from NOAD:

noun wall: [a] a continuous vertical brick or stone structure that encloses or divides an area of land: a garden wallfarmland traversed by drystone walls. [b] a side of a building or room, typically forming part of the building’s structure.

So: exterior walls, vertical surfaces dividing areas of land or the outside vertical surfaces of a building. And interior walls, vertical surfaces making the sides of a room. Artworks created directly on such surfaces (rather than separately created and attached to such a surface) are canonical examples of the category MURAL, labeled mural in modern English.

From the mural City Life by Victor Arnautoff (more on him below) in Coit Tower in San Francisco:


Non-canonical murals 1. For some time — I don’t have the resources to find out how long — the label mural has been extended to take in a larger category MURAL1, applying to artworks on WALL+CEILING, the category embracing not only the side surfaces of rooms, but the ceiling as well (but excluding the floor); English has no label for this category, but many people see it as natural, and occasionally write on the net to ask what the word for it is. (It’s a natural category, so surely there must be a word for it. Alas, no.)

So, we have ceiling murals, the most famous example of which in Western art is Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.


The Creation of Adam (Italian: Creazione di Adamo) is a fresco painting by Italian artist Michelangelo, which forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, painted c. 1508–1512. It illustrates the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis in which God gives life to Adam, the first man. The fresco is part of a complex iconographic scheme and is chronologically the fourth in the series of panels depicting episodes from Genesis.

The image of the near-touching hands of God and Adam has become iconic of humanity. The painting has been reproduced in countless imitations and parodies. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is one of the most replicated religious paintings of all time. (Wikipedia link)

Non-canonical murals 2. MURAL1  takes in art on one horizontal surface (above the observer) as well as on vertical surfaces. MURAL2  goes all the way and takes in art on the other salient horizontal surface (at the observer’s feet)– the floor, if interior; the ground or roadway if exterior. This is the category labeled as mural in the Black Lives Matter stories, and we are now quite a distance from canonical murals. But, again, there’s no English label for MURAL2. So people cope as best they can. Metonymizing as they go.

The Wikipedia entry for mural hints at this final extension, and considers murals in their sociocultural context:

A mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other permanent surfaces. A distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.

… In modern times, the term became more well known with the Mexican muralism art movement (Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and José Orozco).

… Murals are important in that they bring art into the public sphere. Due to the size, cost, and work involved in creating a mural, muralists must often be commissioned by a sponsor. Often it is the local government or a business, but many murals have been paid for with grants of patronage. For artists, their work gets a wide audience who otherwise might not set foot in an art gallery. A city benefits by the beauty of a work of art.

Murals can be a relatively effective tool of social emancipation or achieving a political goal. Murals have sometimes been created against the law, or have been commissioned by local bars and coffee shops. Often, the visual effects are an enticement to attract public attention to social issues. State-sponsored public art expressions, particularly murals, are often used by totalitarian regimes as a tool of propaganda.

Which brings us to Coit Tower. From Wikipedia:

Coit Tower is a 210-foot (64 m) tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California, offering panoramic views over the city and the bay. The tower, in the city’s Pioneer Park, was built between 1932 and 1933 using Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s bequest to beautify the city of San Francisco. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 29, 2008.

The art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard. The interior features fresco murals in the American Social Realism style, painted by 25 different on-site artists and their numerous assistants, plus two additional paintings installed after creation off-site.

… The Coit Tower murals in the American Social Realism style formed the pilot project of the Public Works of Art Project, the first of the New Deal federal employment programs for artists. Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim successfully sought the commission in 1933, and supervised the muralists, who were mainly faculty and students of the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)

(#4) Ralph Stackpole’s Industries of California in Coit Tower

… The artists were committed in varying degrees to racial equality and to leftist and Marxist political ideas, which are strongly expressed in the paintings.

(Note the commitment to racial equality, 80 years ago. Then years of harsh and bloody struggles for civil rights. Now we’re trying again with Black Lives Matter and No Justice / No Peace.  Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.)

Finally, in my posting of 5/29/18 “It’s alive!”, a section on Victor Arnautoff, for two decades a professor of art at Stanford, the artist of the City Life mural in Coit Tower — #2 above — and also of a set of murals at the old Palo Alto Medical Foundation building (around the corner from my house), which sits moldering and in need of restoration.


One Response to “murals”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On 6/7/20, this comment from Dan Goncharoff on ADS-L:

    I remembered this story from a few years ago:
    It uses the term “asphalt mural”.

    This article from 2009 uses “pavement mural”:

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