The Power of Murals in Storytelling for Wayfinding, Placemaking & Branding

Throughout our history, we have told the stories of our people, our place and the times in which we lived through the etching, drawing and painting of symbolic images on walls… all to convey an authentic story of life in that era.

In today’s world, we have seen a resurgence of a modern version of this ancient craft… we call them, murals. It’s little wonder that their prominence and popularity are rapidly expanding… captivating our hearts and spurring the imagination of our people.

Part art, part story, part landmark and mostly magic, murals offer a visual and emotional connecting link to the community… a beacon of light into humanity itself.

In a noisy world, these environmental graphics, small and large, resonate a true story of the community, giving it voice, celebrating life and serving to unite us all.

To better understand the power of murals, we had the honor of speaking with Alexander Austin, renowned artist with over 35 years experience creating murals, including the work on which he collaborated with us for the Kansas City Power & Light District.

“What is so special about these things we create? I think that it is the artist’s ability to convey emotions, through the murals. And I try to convey my best and highest ability, as far as what I’m feeling and thinking. And I feel like, if you can put that into your art, then you can convey that through the mural. And, once everybody gets that feeling of just the representation or just good art, they’ll take that into their hearts and maybe they’ll go out and do something positive also. So, I think, in that regards, it motivates people to positivity, and I think that’s a good thing. Also, it is about cleaning up the blight and everything in your community.”  — Alexander Austin

In placemaking, wayfinding and branding, one of our core duties is in the telling of an authentic story of the people, place and times. There is no better way to accomplish this than to collaborate with local artists to help identify stories which resonate with the community as well as engaging them in bringing those stories to life.

The first collaboration we had with Mr. Austin was with the Kansas City Power & Light District. Painted on the walls of the south side of the district, we celebrated Professional Baseball’s Negro League and Kansas City’s immense Jazz history. Later on, as the construction of One and Two Light apartment buildings threatened to block the view of these wonderful murals, Mr Austin was enlisted once again to reprise these works upon the new buildings.

One of the unique aspects of murals is in the ability for the artist to give voice to community members who might otherwise not be heard. A wonderful example is in a program that Mr. Austin created.

“I created a program called Painting for Peace. There was a time when the murder rate for Kansas City was really high. I decided to help out the community by painting the victims on the walls of dilapidated buildings… over 100 of them. That really set my course because I’m still painting for peace. It’s not all that type of work, yet I still sign all of my work, “Peace”, so it’s my life now.” — Alexander Austin

Murals help heal the community. They draw people together by conveying an honest message representing their lives. They also help heal the artist. Mr. Austin shared his story to us of his battle with homelessness, even while he was painting the original murals in Kansas City. His art and his drive to make the world a better place through it, helped carry him through those times. Unlike so many people, he did not allow his current circumstances prevent him from living his dreams and making a difference.

“I didn’t have any kind of real life experiences, like paying rent and stuff like that, I ended up homeless. I lost the apartment that they’d got me, and I ended up at the City Union Mission. I lived on the street for about a year, on and off, sleeping on… couch-surfing and these different things. And, one day, when I was leaving The City Union Mission, that’s the homeless shelter here, I walked out a few blocks down the street, there was a guy painting a sign. I knew that I had some sign painting experience. And I started talking to him and we became friends and he invited me to stay at his place. We sort of worked together, for about a year or so. But the thing about it is, he was homeless also. I started going around with a sketch pad and I would go into different nightclubs and I would do some portraits of people. I survived, by doing that, for a while. Anything that I could. I did have some art jobs that I did, when I was coming out of it, but just the art carried me through, basically, through my entire life, here in Kansas City. Art has always been a way. And I’ve always found a way to use my art to create a way, some place for me in life. And, yeah, and I’m still doing the same thing.” — Alexander Austin

Murals come in all sizes, shapes and styles. Some are quite literal as in the Homegrown mural, sending a reminder to all to be kind. Some are symbolic, as in the celebration of Kansas City’s rich musical legacy with visual salutes to Kansas City jazz legends Count Basie and Charlie “Bird” Parker on the Three Light Luxury Apartments, where murals pay tribute to Basie and Bird, with a white-to-black gradient that evokes Basie’s piano keys, while brass tones conjure Parker’s saxophone.

Selbert Perkins Design are storytellers. The stories we tell are conveyed through environmental graphics in Wayfinding, Placemaking and Branding. Murals have become a beautiful, powerful tool in telling the authentic story of people, purpose and place.

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