In Writings on Cities, Henri Lefebvre wrote, “The future of art is not artistic, but urban.”
Santurce es Ley, an annual international art festival that happens in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is living proof of this. In 2010, a group of art gallery owners got together to paint a mural to spark life in the crumbling and quiet quarters of the Santurce neighborhood. What started as a spur–of–the–moment neighborly rendezvous eventually became an international arts festival with the purpose of revitalizing the area.
This mission has become especially significant in the context of Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic crisis: As the island drowns in a debt of $72 billion, it has lost over ten percent of its population as unemployment and taxes skyrocket. Basic services like electricity, education and healthcare have collapsed. As a Puerto Rican who has lived on the island my entire life, I have witnessed the economic depression first–hand. I have seen it spiral into a humanitarian crisis, but I have also seen how transformative and powerful the art regarding it can be.
The Santurce es Ley Festival (which translates to Santurce is Law) has, over time, solidified its position as the prime expositor of emerging contemporary art and young creative talent in Puerto Rico. Like artists and organizers of the MuralArts program in Philadelphia, Puerto Rican artists aim to rehabilitate the Santurce neighborhood through art by transforming the sector into an arts mecca.
"Buscamos crear ciudad a través del arte." This saying, roughly meaning, "We strive to create city through art," is commonly heard throughout the festival. The project aims to create artworks on abandoned walls and deteriorated spaces to promote anti–violence and peaceful messages of unity and creativity—so even when the festival is over, it continues to change and transform the Santurce landscape and its residents.
Even if Penn students cannot all visit Puerto Rico for spring break (you should, by the way) and admire art actively changing urban spaces, a similar, impressive initiative has existed long before the Santurce es Ley festival: MuralArts.
Established in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti–Graffiti Network's effort to eradicate the city’s graffiti, MuralArts began as an initiative to cover the entire city during a tough period in messages of love, unity, and peace. Jane Golden, an iconic and prominent muralist, began the initiative. The MuralArts program organizes individual projects executed by both community members and artists alike. The program eventually became a separate entity.
Over time, MuralArts’ mural–making processes became powerful vehicles for generating conversations, emboldening neighborhoods and creating economic revitalization by bringing in artists to work, live and work in these urban spaces. Through its core series of programs—Art Education, Porch Light and Art Education—it provides thousands of project–based opportunities of creative growth for thousands of Philadelphia residents—from artists, to students, to community leaders, to crime victims and jailed inmates. The program currently boasts a collection of over 3,000 murals which have transformed the Philadelphia urban landscape and highlighted the transformative and healing powers of art in communities.
A usual trope which surrounds both the Puerto Rican and the Pennsylvanian initiative is that the words of prophets are written on the walls. Street art is stigmatized as a visual representation of the degradation of society—yet in the case of both MuralArts and Santurce es Ley, local and international artists and communities are bringing about messages of peace, light, love and change through artistic expressions that last long after the collaborations are over. Graffiti and mural prophets, if anything, are changing both home and the place I have learned to call home, one mural at a time.