We walk by murals and graffiti every day. They become a part of our commute, the background of our pictures, and the elements of our neighborhoods that make the place stand out. But we often fail to notice them. In my hometown in Arkansas, murals are starting to pop up as a part of the revitalization effort downtown, and I don’t know anything about them.
When I moved into a neighborhood in Indianapolis for the summer, I was intrigued. There is so much public art here. As I started walking around the neighborhood, I found more murals in back alleys, behind businesses, and tucked in corners. One day, I found a black and white mural of what looked to me like an Asian woman, smiling up at the sky. She made me feel less alone in a big city where I didn’t know very many people.
I didn’t know who painted her or why. All I knew was that I hadn’t seen very many people who looked like me in my neighborhood, and the fact that she was there meant that maybe there were other Asians here too. Maybe the artist was Asian. Maybe I could talk to them.
Over the last month, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the artists in my neighborhood for an article. I learned about the color blind artist, Nick Abstract, who fills the city with the brightest colors he can see: blues, oranges, and corals. I talked to the artist behind the cartoon astronauts I’d seen around. And I hung out with some of the artists who have been here for over a decade.
I’m intrigued by the dynamic between public perception of art and artist because it reminds me of the dynamic between perception of my work and me. A lot of the murals around here are tribute pieces. They have particular significance to those who created them and are full of inside jokes and easter eggs.
But people seem to feel like an expert on the art in their neighborhood. In the process of reporting the pieces, I heard a lot of confident speculation about what pieces meant. The artists know what’s said. They live here too.
The thing is, that the work doesn’t speak for itself. Even writing, which one might think is more straightforward, is something we project ourselves on. People sometimes tell me what my work means. I often don’t agree with them, but I appreciate that they read it.
Sometimes, it still bothers me that even my most carefully chosen words don’t always —or even often—convey the meaning I intend. But the artists I talked to had a very different attitude when it comes to the way their art is perceived: if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. They’re happy to have other interpretations.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get there with my writing. But in the process of reporting my article about the art, I discovered that the mural I mentioned earlier isn’t of an Asian woman after all. It’s of an Icelandic singer named Björk, and no one remembers who put her up there. But that hasn’t changed the way I feel about the painting. I still go see her on my off days. I feel an odd sense of solidarity with her—even if she’s not who I thought she was.
To the artist I did not find, thank you—for making my life just a little more beautiful.