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Street art has become a global business — and artists are worrying over its future

The “VA Is for Lovers” mural in Crystal City has been shared again and again on Instagram. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

At the base of an abandoned building, the word “lovers” is surrounded by undulating pastel swirls and sun-dappled patterns. Walking through the mural feels like being enveloped in a candy-colored world. Scroll through Instagram, and you’ll find locals and tourists alike posing in front of the work, which is just one of more than a dozen large-scale murals in Crystal City, Va., created as part of developer JBG Smith’s efforts to revitalize the area.

The phenomenon is hardly unique to Crystal City. From the giant Shepard Fairey work adorning the side of the Line Hotel in Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, where a corporate-run block party hired a street artist to paint last fall, street art has been increasingly used in recent years for promotion and profit. What was once viewed as a problem by public officials has turned into a “marketable commodity,” complete with bitter copyright disputes and PR stunts designed to bait social media influencers.

The upshot of this is that there are more ways than ever for artists to make a living practicing their craft — and that graffiti masters like the District’s Asad Walker now garner widespread acclaim instead of criminal charges. But commodification changes a medium, especially one with radical roots, and some members of the community are conflicted about street art's evolution.

“It’s clearly a harbinger of gentrification,” Gaia, a prolific Baltimore-based street artist who works with developers and social justice activists, says of street art today. “It’s something I struggle with every day.” He admires Italian muralist Blu, who famously destroyed some of their most iconic works in Bologna, Italy, and Berlin as a public act of protest.

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Rafael Schacter, author of “The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti,” is an advocate of public art but worries that many of the works going up today are superficial. Street art festivals like Pow! Wow! Washington D.C., in the city’s increasingly trendy NoMa, and HKWalls, which has left murals around some of Hong Kong’s ritziest neighborhoods, have a way of injecting what Schacter calls an air of edgy cool into an area almost overnight. “Murals can change perceptions of space, but they’re too often utilized as simply a way of cheaply transforming a space for the benefit of the few,” he says.

Today's street art is a far cry from the independent, often illegal medium of the ’80s and ’90s that made Banksy a household name. While graffiti tagging hasn’t disappeared, increasingly hefty fines have made many think twice before busting out a spray can, and the more elaborate building-size murals making a splash nowadays are generally funded by big-name brands, city-sanctioned public works projects, or property developers hoping to capitalize on the cultural zeitgeist.

From a developer's standpoint, the move makes sense. In 2009, property tycoon Tony Goldman sent the real estate values in an economically depressed neighborhood of Miami skyrocketing with a collection of murals known as the Wynwood Walls. The model was an instant social media smash and has inspired imitations from Crystal City to the Las Vegas Arts District.

“Street art has a really incredible way of making people feel connected to a place,” says Rob Mandle, chief operating officer of the Crystal City Business Improvement District. “Anything that helps drive a sense of place, there’s economic value in that.”

Developers aren’t the only ones who see value in murals. MuralsDC — like similar programs in Baltimore and Philadelphia — matches property owners and artists in an attempt to dissuade illegal tagging. Since launching in 2007, the anti-graffiti initiative has led to the creation of more than 70 murals in over 40 neighborhoods around the District. “We want local artists to feel as though there is a solid future for them in this industry,” Christopher Shorter, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, says of MuralsDC.

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For artists, having any kind of future in this industry may mean taking corporate commissions — at least at first. These days, Joe Pagac, a muralist based in Tucson who is gearing up to return to the District for another project, is able to pick his clients, but in his earlier years, he couldn’t afford to be so selective — especially given the price of his materials. For a Kickstarter-funded public mural in his hometown, he estimates he spent roughly $20,000, mostly on a lift rental and high-quality paint that retails for about $100 a gallon.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can’t charge for your art because that takes away the purity of it,’ ” he says. “But if I don’t, I’ll have to go become a mortgage broker and not make any art.”

Kate DeCiccio, an Oakland, Calif.-based artist who has worked on multiple projects with MuralsDC, steers clear of the more lucrative developer-funded gigs because of the political nature of her work, but she empathizes with artists who take them. One of her recent collaborations in the District with Rose Jaffe is a mural honoring the city’s jazz legacy at 624 T St. NW, where Duke Ellington once played. DeCiccio is gearing up to create a mural at a subsidized housing development for veterans and another at a small immigrant-run restaurant.

“I have strong feelings around the way that art has real power,” she says. “Murals provide you with this special intensive nugget of time to just lean into local narratives and talk to people who have tons of cool stories and haven’t always had the opportunity to share them.”

It’s an attitude shared by Brandon Hill and Peter Chang, the founders of the D.C. creative agency No Kings Collective, which produced a number of Crystal City’s murals. Since 2009, the duo has tackled projects ranging from pro-bono to corporate. They even collaborated with the Hirshhorn Museum last February for an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and consumerism.

“The fact that artists are being brought into conversations about how things are going to look, that’s an opportunity,” Hill says. “Most art goes into a home or a warehouse to see if it can incur value. This is going back to the street, the common watering hole.”

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Hill and Chang are careful about which commercial jobs they take, but they say that those they’ve pursued have been creatively fulfilling. Painting the “Lovers” mural in Crystal City, for instance, was a herculean undertaking tackled in below-freezing temperatures in January and February. The crew had to use space heaters and makeshift tent structures to keep their aerosol paints from solidifying to a sludge the consistency of cake batter.

As tough as it was, it boosted their skill set and gave them the financial freedom to take on other projects without worrying so much about making a profit. One of their most recent works was a mural for Whitman-Walker Health, a community health center in the District that focuses on helping members of the LGBTQ community with HIV.

“The low-hanging fruit is to talk about development and tie that to gentrification,” Hill says. “But you can also think of it in terms of making an awesome thing and providing it to the public free. That’s what murals are.”