One hot summer day, I encountered a striking mural of pop star Michael Jackson on the side of a nondescript, five-story brick building at First Avenue and East 11th Street in New York’s East Village. The mural depicted Jackson as a man-child, dividing his face in two, while vibrant hues of pink, blue, yellow, and green converged into a geometric pattern on his bisected visage. Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra was the mind behind this piece. The mural was a brilliant spectacle, and it set me to thinking about murals as a whole. That line of thought compelled me to seek out more of them on the streets of New York City.
As I roamed around, I started to notice street art everywhere I looked. Colorful tributes to John Lennon, Mother Teresa, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg; joyful celebrations of hip-hop artists; playful depictions of Peanuts characters; and moving portraits of distressed children. In unlikely places, I came across eclectic murals like a fierce tiger on a firehouse door near the Brooklyn Bridge, blooming spring flowers above a parking lot in Soho, and melting ice cream cones on a Chinatown wall.
Like Jackson’s larger-than-life image, they were all spectacles. Could that be why artists paint murals? To create spectacular works of art bigger and more everlasting than themselves? Think how people flock to Milan to view The Last Supper, painted centuries ago by Leonardo da Vinci. Are murals like tickets to immortality?
Whatever the artist’s purpose, the remarkable world of murals was a revelation to me. It was like seeing my reflection in the mirror for the first time. I found myself wondering: How does my home city of Pittsburgh stack up when it comes to these monumental compositions? Could the Steel City hang with the Big Apple in a murals match?
It’s easy to find guides to Pittsburgh’s murals, but I wanted to discover them the way I did in New York, by serendipity—spotting them haphazardly while gadding about town. And spot them I did, strewn across the city’s terrain in all directions:
–Downtown on Strawberry Way, a quirky mural featuring steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and artist Andy Warhol in a beauty parlor seated under hair dryers against a background of bubbles
–In the Strip District, a nostalgic mural dedicated to jazz legends like Errol Garner and Lena Horne, evoking a bygone era of speakeasies and nightclubs as it flaunts a whimsically long and curvaceous piano
–On Centre Avenue in the Hill District, a symbolic mural honoring playwright August Wilson, splashed with colors, characters, and scenes from his famous plays
On a side street in East Liberty, a sobering mural commemorating rapper Mac Miller who died young from a drug overdose—posed with one hand covering his right eye while he peers out cryptically from his left one
Murals, murals everywhere adorning our urban landscape. Too numerous to describe, making my head giddy. Works paying tribute to civil rights activists, industrial workers, and victims of violence. Butterflies on a storefront, a mermaid on a loading dock, and a floral bouquet in an alleyway. Even when not actively searching, I unearthed murals—on a bike trail by the river, adjacent to an old blast furnace, inside a hilltop church.
With their provocative themes, intense colors, and variegated designs, these works transform the environment. Like Manhattan’s murals, they stun onlookers, making a powerful impact on the cityscape. No doubt about it, Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous public art—impressive, pulsating, dynamic–can hold its own against the Big Apple’s best.
Ask me for my favorite mural and I’d say it’s hard to choose, but three pieces stand out.
No doubt about it, Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous public art—impressive, pulsating, dynamic–can hold its own against the Big Apple’s best.
One is an enigma—the renowned Bride on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Wearing a gauzy white wedding gown, a solitary bride mounts the steps of a dreary red-brick house with a green wooden porch. Wraithlike, she pauses when approaching the front door, an anxious look on her face. Why the hesitation? Is she agonizing over matrimony or something ominous in the house? Does she have a sense of foreboding?
We’ll never know, but what makes the mural eerily tragic is the fate of its two creators, artist Judy Penzer and designer Jill Watson. Both died in a plane crash on July 17, 1996, a year after completing it.
Another mural with tragic overtones appears farther down Penn Avenue in lower Lawrenceville. Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente looms over the Strip District on the side of the Roberto Clemente Museum, captured by artist Kyle Holbrook in 2019. Like the ghostly bride up the street, the stoical image of Clemente haunts me, clad in his black and white Pirates uniform and baseball cap, his eyes pensive, his lips closed, his chin set, his face colored in creamy tones of golden brown.
Is he pondering his childhood in Puerto Rico and the people he left behind? Does he dream about his World Series prospects? Maybe he’s up next at bat, surveying the outfield in Forbes Field. Whatever he’s doing, Clemente’s face wears an unshakeable resolve, a trait demonstrated when he perished in a plane crash December 31, 1972, while flying to Nicaragua on a heroic mission to help earthquake victims.
Though tinged with sadness, Clemente’s mural is uplifting and serene, stark in its simplicity, and analogous to one on the Bluff that’s equally inspiring. “I Am Because We Are,” graces the side of the Laval House on Duquesne University’s campus, painted by artist Gerard Tonti in 2011.
This captivating work portrays two African women joining arms to form a triangle over a Baobab tree—a picture of tranquility. Rays of gold emanate from a chaste white dove above the women, illuminating bold colors of red, orange, and brown. In the background, an ornate tapestry interweaves African symbols of peace and harmony, conveying unity among all living things.
I Am Because We Are elevates us by connecting us to the world outside ourselves. In such ways, murals pry our eyes open, nudging us beyond the boundaries of our restrictive enclaves.
Murals can also boost camaraderie in the community. Take the Color Park on the South Side along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Flamboyant drawings on cement blocks in garish colors confront people traversing the path, ranging from mushrooms and Martians to an alluring pair of female eyes. Conceived in 2017 by former Steeler and artist Baron Batch, it’s a community space where ordinary citizens freely express themselves, exhibiting that quintessential Pittsburgh pride. An imaginative way to showcase a neighborhood.
But is this graffiti, art, or just visual excitement? Graffiti can be art, as I discovered when touring the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale. What I thought was graffiti actually was a mural called The Steel Worker, painted on a long wall bordering a green field—formerly a yard for dumping iron ore. Awash in rainbow colors, a formidable-looking laborer in the cauldron of the mill peers through his goggles, intently focused on forging steel. This work pays homage to Pittsburgh’s legacy as the nation’s steel capital, illustrating how graffiti and street art can simultaneously tell stories and beautify the surroundings.
If murals can flourish on former industrial sites, they can thrive anywhere. “Mural” may be derived from “le mur,” the French word for wall, but paintings need not be on walls to be murals. They can be on floors or ceilings, or any interior or exterior surface—a garage door or the silo of a barn. Chalk artists draw pictures on sidewalks—evanescent to be sure, vanishing with rain—but murals just the same.
Themes of war’s brutality and capitalism’s greed interlock with mothers grieving over sons lost in battle or industrial toil, messages as relevant today as yesterday.
In terms of indoor murals, Pittsburgh’s version of the Sistine Chapel resides at St. Nicholas Catholic Croatian Church in Millvale. Decades ago, artist Maxo Vanka skillfully painted these treasures, a dramatic series of vignettes on the walls and ceiling inside the church.
Alongside religious images, Vanka painted pastoral scenes from his native Croatia and portraits of immigrants’ daily lives in America. Themes of war’s brutality and capitalism’s greed interlock with mothers grieving over sons lost in battle or industrial toil, messages as relevant today as yesterday. If you can’t visit the Vatican to view Michelangelo’s masterpieces, immerse yourself in Vanka’s murals and prepare to be transfixed.
During paleolithic times in France and Spain, our ancestors created murals at the Lascaux and Altamira Caves–prehistoric drawings and engravings of animals and symbols that lasted thousands of years. Like today’s muralists, primitive humans must have experienced a deep desire to leave an imprint on the world.
Perhaps they, too, understood how art is timeless, outlasting and transcending the artist. From a rap star in East Liberty to a pop star in the East Village, the murals that artists painstakingly create, truly endure, ultimately surpassing our temporal existence.