Two years into running our creative placemaking nonprofit, we’ve started to see a pattern anytime we approach a business owner about using their wall for a mural installation. This is almost always how it goes, verbatim, after we explain to them that we are going to fix up their building for free. “How about a flag?” they ask. “Something historical that represents the town? Or, wait—I KNOW—let’s paint wings!” I’m not kidding when I say that nine times out of 10, building owners ask for wings murals because they don’t know any better.
And while I won’t fault them that, I also won’t pass on the chance to educate the masses on why the wings murals trend is long over.
I get it: I’ve been guilty of taking photographs in front of wings murals back when they were still a novelty. And sure, it’s tough for people who aren’t immersed in art to surrender control and let a muralist create a completely unique and beautiful masterpiece. But if that’s the case, ask yourself: why are you wanting to commission art in the first place if you are dead-set on dictating the final product?
colorful murals we stumbled upon in low-income neighborhoods in Lisbon
Still, whether you’re a rural community, a vibrant micropolitan or a bustling metropolis, in a time when we’re all home and reevaluating our lives and businesses, is the perfect opportunity to also think about how we all work with artists. Have you thought about hiring a muralist to paint a wall on your building? Great! Do you think you’re going to ask (tell) them to paint wings? WRONG. If you think that’s such a great idea, then clearly you should just paint it yourself, rather than spending your hard-earned dollars on a professional muralist who is far beyond that in his or her career.
How wings murals took flight
We have 34-year-old artist Kelsey Montague to thank (blame?) for the wings mural trend. While she certainly wasn’t the first to do it, she made this style of interactive art wildly popular. And one of my favorite musical artists, Taylor Swift, was also to thank (blame?). In 2014, after Montague painted her first #WhatLiftsYou wings mural in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood, Taylor Instagrammed a photo of herself in front of the wings, then had her come to Nashville and paint yet another pair right across the street from the Gulch wings that have become a thorn in every Nashvillian’s side, in particular the businesses down that way.
This original piece by Montague was an advertisement for the release of Swift’s ME! single and was taken down after just two weeks. It also falls in the category of advertising not art due to the nature of the messaging.
It’s easy to see how wings murals became the thing to do: After all, anyone can paint them—they don’t require a lot of skill—and they pretty much beg for a photo opp, right? But guess what, so does pretty much every mural ever created! That’s the beauty of public art in the first place: Not only do murals alter the environment they inhabit, but they create a beautiful piece of photogenic art on the exterior of your home or business that can be appreciated by all, no matter age, race or income level. I’m not sure when business owners became obsessed with demanding “interactive art;” art by its mere existence is interactive. If you can’t find a way to interact and connect with a piece, that’s on you, the viewer, and not the artist.
This isn’t a dig at Kelsey Montague, by the way, because honestly, good for her. I love seeing female entrepreneurs thrive—she’s talented, she’s business-savvy, she saw an opportunity, and she capitalized on it; as a result of following a whim, today she makes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually painting her style of wings murals all over the world, everywhere from Dubai to Tucson. And as a result of her fame, she’s now able to dabble in other kinds of murals, like my personal favorite of hers: this hot air balloon on the side of the Cleo in East Nashville.
Here’s why wings are a bad idea
While you may think a wings mural is the most genius idea ever and that you’re the first to have this epiphany, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you’re a good five years behind the trend—it’s been six years since Montague’s work took off, and the art world has since moved on to bigger and better things. Don’t be that TikTok mom who asks her tween if she’s heard of “Renegade.” This is what people everywhere think of wings murals:
They’re not original; in fact, nothing is more uninspiring
Been there, done that—when something is this ubiquitous, would we call it art? Sure, it may have been cool the first few times Kelsey painted them in highly-trafficked neighborhoods like Downtown Manhattan and Nashville’s The Gulch, but that launched a thousand copycats across the country. And really, is it actually art if you’re just knocking off something someone has already done before you and much better? All things to ponder.
Folek, a talented Nashville muralist we’ve worked with a few times, says: “I feel like it was cool once. Now, let’s do something different. It’s not art to me if everyone is doing it. Art is about being individualistic—showing one’s soul, not somebody else’s.”
Folek flexing his creative muscle while painting for us during ARTober
They’re doing the exact opposite of art’s purpose: to create a unique experience
Kris Kanaly is the king of unique experiences. On top of creating massive pieces of immersive art as an artist under the handle @PyramidGuy, he’s also the founder of Plaza Walls, a nonprofit that curates a 5,160-square-foot rotating outdoor gallery in Oklahoma City. But even he, who has been working on various sides of the art world for more than a decade, is not immune to this cry for more wings.
One of my favorite pieces of Kanaly’s, “Abstract Passages” links downtown OKC and Bricktown, covering 10,000 square feet of concrete.
“I feel it’s a rare occurrence when a place-making client doesn’t include a winged mural within the images they’ve sent us for ‘inspiration,'” he tells me. “The concept of interactive murals has exploded and is a very common request when working with developers and place-makers. However, from a curator’s perspective, I believe our goal should be to create unique experiences with unexpected and original art—something that gives a district an identity.
He also reinforces that if you want a trend, just go to the original trend-maker; no need to hire someone else to rip off the original artist.
“It’s okay to feature trends but hire the original trendsetter, not other artists who are looking to capitalize on other people’s ideas. When we just appropriate the same idea everywhere, we end up with homogenized experiences without any unique quality. I understand wanting to attract people to your large investment but draw them in with an original idea. Otherwise, we should just open up a bunch of chain restaurants called ‘Murals-N-Wings’ with winged murals on the side and extra dipping sauce.”
Because here’s the thing: If you’re asking a muralist to paint wings, you’re essentially requesting a Kelsey rip-off. And who wants to be responsible for intellectual property theft? Not me, the arts evangelist, and certainly not you, the business owner.
They’re a slap in the face to professional artists
If we, as mural curators, get asked for wings nearly every initial interaction, I wondered what it was like among actual muralists, especially those known for incredibly elevated and detailed art, for whom wings are far below their skill level. So I polled a dozen of them, and the response was shocking.
Nashville muralist Nathan Brown told me he gets a request for “something like the wings; we want a line of people around the block” nine times out of 10. He always responds affably with “we’ll try and figure out something cooler.”
Nathan Brown created “Landscape of the Heart” for us in Tullahoma last fall.
Richmond muralist Chris Zidek is no stranger to the wings request either and has his response down pat.
“Usually in as polite as tone as I can muster, I tell the potential client there are already wings, and no matter how cool the next set may be rendered, there’s no chance they will be as popular as the originals,” he says. “My work doesn’t really lend itself to interaction, unless someone just poses in front of it. I don’t have an issue with it at all, but I feel like the art I do is for people to look at and reflect, maybe meditate on all the shapes for a bit. It goes back to my artist statement, or personal philosophy of geometry and the natural world/cosmos.”
Chris Zidek’s work on the side of a parking garage on one of Nashville’s medical campuses
Tallahassee-based muralist Sarah Painter of SPCH Walls also receives wings requests “a lot.” She tells me, “I normally try and pivot and ask ‘why do you want wings? Is it for the photo opportunity? Is there something about the Nashville wings you like stylistically?’ And from there, I use the ‘why’ to shift to a design that is more original and specific to the atmosphere that we are trying create. If you dig a little deeper, I can usually avoid doing them.”
She continues, adding that usually the person doesn’t actually love wings, but rather it’s all they know, likely because they’ve seen the trend pop up on their social media radar.
“They aren’t always hard set on it, but for the initial brainstorm they throw it out there as a possibility. It’s funny they normally think they’re like spilling an insider trend that not many people know about or something. And I’m like please, no, don’t do this to yourself.”
a SPCH original in Memphis
Painter—and yes, that’s actually her name—is an extremely talented portrait artist, and she and her partner Cosby Hayes paint all kinds of murals, many laced with social commentary, from Florida to Canada to Haiti and even this tribute to suicide victims here in Tennessee.
My point being, if you let an artist do what they’re best at—translating a creative thought buried in the depths of their brains onto a wall—magic happens, as Sarah and Cosby have demonstrated time and time again.
Sarah and Cosby painted this large-scale mural for 48 Blocks Atlantic City last summer
It’s not art, it’s advertising — be prepared to pay accordingly
One prolific muralist who asked to remain nameless told me that he gets these requests more often than not, likely due to everyone in Nashville having seen the lines the Gulch wings draw.
“I tell them, ‘it’s been done already. It’s played out. You won’t be able to recreate that reaction of the wings in the Gulch. Timing and location were the main factors of that murals success.”
He goes on to note that this style of mural falls more into the advertising category—which would be subject to sign ordinances by your local codes department—than actual art, which is protected by the First Amendment.
“I’ve told people recently that if you want me to come up with a selfie/interactive viral photo opp, you will have to pay accordingly. I can’t charge by the square foot for a social media marketing campaign. If I’m acting as an advertising agency, I will need to be compensated as such,” he says. “All that being said, if the money is right I will make it happen. After all it is a creative process and I enjoy a challenge. It doesn’t come without its headaches though.”
an example of a wall, now destroyed by the Nashville tornado, that would be considered advertising rather than art
For my fellow writers, I equate the ask of wings to if every tourism board I ever worked with asked me to come to their destination and write the exact same piece—then dictated exactly what they wanted me to say. That’s not how journalism works, it’s advertising; in fact, that’s not how art in any form works. You don’t hire Justin Timberlake to write you a hit song, then give him the chords and the lyrics—apply that same logic to muralists.
But what do consumers think of wings murals?
I’ve seen practically everyone I know in person and follow online from Nashville complain about the way the Gulch wings inhibit everything from cars to foot traffic trying to reach businesses. But I didn’t want to just assume everyone thought the same way as Nashvillians, who let’s be honest, are usually too cool for school. So I took a very unofficial official Instagram poll and posed this question to the masses:
“What’s your gut reaction when you see a wings mural?”
It was one of my most viewed and interacted with stories ever. Hundreds of answers later, I had a decent sample set, the majority American women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, though some men, too: a whopping 84 percent said they either despised them—I got a lot of vomit and eye roll Emojis in succession—or could do without, whereas the other 16 percent either thought they were fun or “are not my style, but they’re not hurting anyone either, so I say let them do what they please.”
A few pull quotes from consumers:
“I die a little inside, look for the basic-girl line that is a mile long, then join them sometimes.”
“Maybe because I don’t live somewhere with a wings mural, I don’t mind them (*shrugs*).”
“They were super cute in the beginning, and I like thinking about what lifts me, but it got old.”
“Gut reaction: fun! And then I sigh and roll my eyes.”
“First time: awwww, cute! 10th time: cute, but less. 100th time: OK, next.”
“This is played out. Uninventive. Boring. Repetition doesn’t make it less trite.”
“It brings a certain kind of tourist to the neighborhood—the kind that wears Ed Hardy.”
So after reading all this, if you’re still thinking of a wings mural, I challenge you to reconsider and embrace creativity—stretch your metaphorical wings and don’t let what’s trendy (five years ago) color your idea of what art can be. You are hiring a muralist based on his or her artistic merit, so let the artist do what you’re hiring him/her to do in the first place: create something completely unique and awesome.
Here are a few mural cities we find inspiring:
- The Best Murals in Oklahoma City and Where to Find Them
- A Work of Street Art: The Best Murals in Nashville
- Murals in Memphis: Why Street Art Lovers Flock to West Tennessee
- From Projection Mapping to Murals, the Cincinnati Art Scene Is Red Hot
- Murals in Lisbon: How Portugal’s Grittiest Neighborhoods Became Works of Art
I’d love to know what my fellow mural chasers think: Has the trend on wings murals taken flight and flown right to the graveyard? Or do you still love them?