If you decide you want to paint something on that enticing blank space on the side of a building in Jersey City, a couple of folks will be looking over your shoulder.
The city wants to make sure it’s art, not a sign – and the arts community wants to make sure it’s good.
Let’s say you’re an incredibly bad artist or maybe not an artist at all. Dylan Evans, founder of the Jersey City Mural Arts Program, might suggest you create your masterpieces in the privacy of your own home.
A photographer who has lived in Jersey City 14 years, Evans’s day job is to scout and shoot locations for films and television pilots. “I was driving around Jersey City a few years ago,” he recalled, “and saw a lot of blank space. I knew Philadelphia had gained a lot of recognition for their mural programs. I wanted to do something similar, and it didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.”
“I want to make the streets of Jersey City a gallery.” – Dylan Evans
He called on well-known Jersey City artist Ron English, who had a reputation beyond the city, known for his works exploring brand imagery, advertising – and street art.
“Ron was living in Jersey City at the time,” Evans said, “and I thought if I find a wall and get the elements together, he’d be interested.”
English and an artist named Bigfoot painted a mural on the wall of Hudson County Art Supplies on Coles and First.
Evans has a good relationship with the Jersey City Division of Cultural Affairs. He said his modus operandi has been to find a blank wall, get permission from the property owner to paint on it, secure the artists, and then contact Cultural Affairs for the go ahead.
Cultural Affairs, he said, “trusted my ability to pick artists and manage murals that were going to be effective and not controversial. It was a quality control issue.”
The process worked, but in November there was a slight glitch when the Jersey City Planning Board put itself in the middle of a mural project. They indicated that documents, such as a certificate and sketches of the proposed art, are required in order for a mural to be painted on a wall. They were apparently referencing a city ordinance that not all the artists knew about.
Cultural Affairs was not aware of these requirements, nor were the people involved with the mural or the property owner involved.
“Our office saw it, and there were definitely concerns about freedom of expression,” said Maryanne Kelleher, director, Jersey City Cultural Affairs. “In general, we require that art in public places not violate community standards.” In other words, the art cannot interfere with historic sites and cannot depict such things as violence, profanity, illegal activities, gang activity, or drug use.
The Planning Board came back, explaining that their intent in requiring documentation was to differentiate a mural from a sign. They may be in favor of whales, but not advertisements about whales. (“Get Your Whales Here!!!”)
Last week a new mural ordinance was adopted by the City Council that addresses this issue, prohibiting the use of would-be mural space for signs but otherwise facilitating the creation of murals.
Bottom Line? Artists have to comply with community standards but there are no draconian rules.
“The biggest complaint about the original ordinance was that a sketch had to be provided to planning and zoning ahead of time,” Kelleher said. There was no one with professional arts credentials on these boards. “Art is relative,” Kelleher said. “Some may have thought the Mona Lisa was an abomination but now she’s hanging in the Louvre. That’s the wonderful thing about art. You may not always please the public.”
Whale of a wall
If you happen to be walking down Newark Avenue just east of Jersey Avenue, you’ve probably seen it. Hard to miss, it’s a giant blue whale swimming on the side of a 90-foot brick wall. This was the project that had occasioned all the mural angst in the first place. Evans coordinated the project, hooking up the SAGE collective, a group of New Jersey artists, with the willing property owner.
“At first it was going to be an underwater scene with the whale at the center,” Evans said, “but then they liked the look of the whale alone, although they may come back to add some creatures.”
Some properties, Evans said, “are easily swayed. They like to have murals but had not thought about it. Others have thought about it and I approached them at the right time.” Like the Police Athletic League. “They saw an article in the paper and reached out to me,” Evan said.
The result was a mural on Monticello on the old YMCA center wall. Other property owners, he said, “prefer not getting involved and leaving a blank wall.”
Another successful project was completed two years ago at the Morgan Industrial building at 350 Warren St. “A few dozen artists were involved with that project,” Evans said
City of art
Evans wants local murals to be a “contribution to the city’s art community, to bring world-class artists to Jersey City to paint large spectacular pieces, almost like making the streets of Jersey City a gallery. My long-term goal is to have murals throughout neighborhoods and get a lot of positive press for Jersey City.”
He has a grand vision: “To create an art destination and stimulate art tourism here, to stimulate the local economy, and add to the beautification of communities.”
For more on the Jersey City Mural Arts Program, visit www.jerseycitypop.blogspot.com.
Kate Rounds can be reached at email@example.com..