Interpreting Blu’s Whitewashed Mural, Part 1

There has been so much talk about Blu‘s commissioned mural but few people are talking about the work itself and what it could mean. As a critic who has been looking at a great deal of street art for years, I want to weigh in on the topic. Some art critics have been dismissive of the work and thought it callous, while some writers and online commenters are of the opinion that it’s not much to look at.

Most of these people have a limited knowledge of street art and the criteria that is often used to judge it and its meaning, interest, etc. That’s not to discount their judgments, since I think it’s important that people weigh in on the debate regardless of their perspective, and art is culturally valuable when it generates discussion. Blu’s work often probes responses of all kinds. The artist doesn’t seem to differentiate between the positive and the negative responses in a way you might think, and in his 2009 Barcelona video he included the voices of people who disparage his work as an important part of the record.

Who is Blu?

If the name Blu is new to many in the world of contemporary art, then it is because they probably haven’t been paying attention to the burgeoning field of street art. The Bologna-based talent has been the talk of the whole street art universe, which includes blogs, magazines, and websites (not to mention Flickr and other social media sites) where his work is as renowned as Banksy, Invader, Shepard Fairey, and others.

A detail of a Blu mural in Barcelona (2009) (click to enlarge)

Active for about a decade, Blu’s work has become increasingly provocative and his popularity perfectly fits with the arch of street art’s ascendancy into the mainstream. His murals on the West Bank barrier (2007) critical of the Israeli-built wall, his critiques of Brazilian gun violence in Sao Paolo (2007), and more recently his indictment of American finance and the Columbia drug war in Bogota (2009), all demonstrate his interest in pushing boundaries. His more political work tackles topics that are often victims of the corporate media’s ability to turn anything into meaningless chatter that mentally numbs the masses by presenting every issue with the illusion that they each have two congruent sides that deserve equal consideration. Blu’s imagery cuts through that noise with graphic clarity. If Blu’s murals are in some ways obvious, that’s the point. Street art often competes (and sometimes wins) with the barrage of corporate advertising we are subjected to on a daily basis. Blu’s images are inflated to massive proportion. They play with our perception of space and challenge us to look at places we often overlook. This is an attribute of most street art.

A Polish wall mural by Blu that probes American concerns about safety, 2008 (via

The MOCA mural is also not the first time Blu has tackled the topic of military deaths, which many people believe is the focus of Blu’s censored mural. In his 2008 mural in Denmark a giant hand with a pencil (the artist?) takes aim at soldier who scurry away in fear. The point I’m trying to make is that Deitch would had more than enough information through a simple Google search to know what he was getting with Blu. Even the use of currency is something that has occurred in his work, like his Barcelona mural of a shark composed of Euros.

Though people have been focusing on the issue of the military and the proximity of the mural to a Japanese-American WWII memorial, I think it represents a great deal more than that. Those are dollar bills on the caskets. We live in a time where the economic supremacy of America is no longer a given, and pundits and economists alike debate when the US will, like Japan did earlier this year, fall behind the economic powerhouse that is China. Today, the US dollar no longer reigns supreme, and America is not the acropolis of commerce it once was.

If the mural itself is critical of American power (whether economic or military) then its placement near a war memorial makes it more poignant. Until last year there was a ban on depicting the coffins of fallen American soldiers as they returned stateside, the image of coffins is as much about prohibitions that we impose on ourselves as a culture. Why do we silo discussions of war, economics, and power into specific places? Even public protests — as anyone who has participated in one, particularly in a large city, can tell you — are corralled into pens, often removed from the targets of disagreement. Others have been critical of the culture of monuments in our society and some have hinted at their role in shaping and skewing memory, but Blu’s mural raises questions about the role of the artist in our society. Veterans care more about soldiers than anyone is our society and they are certainly concerned about the abuse of military might that causes the death of soldiers. Sequestered to the safety of the museum, Blu’s message would be stared at and forgotten. If you need any reminder as to the American art world’s own political bubble, one only has to remember that during Bush II years it was hard to find many Republicans in the art world, or anyone who was for the Iraq War for that matter. Yet the rest of America was until around 2007. As much as artists railed against the war and Bush II’s human rights abuses we were essentially talking to ourselves. Blu doesn’t appear to be interested in that insularity.

Blu shot to popular acclaim with his jaw-dropping “Muto: An Ambitious Animation Painted on Public Walls” video he worked on in Argentina in 2008. That video set a new bar for street art and online art video in general. Not only was the artist acknowledging the ephemeral urban context of the work but he was creating a very contemporary record that wowed an online audience that watched the video 8.3+ million times on YouTube alone. His appeal goes far and wide.

Tomorrow Friday Monday, Part 2: An Art Historical Perspective

Top photo: Blu’s mural on the Geffen Contemporary before it was whitewashed. Credit: Brian Forrest / MOCA, via

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