Linda Hoang laughs as she talks about her “lifelong quest” to be photographed in front of pink murals in cities around the world: The Edmonton blogger’s Instagram feed is a testament to the power of pretty walls. In one photo she’s in a summer dress, posing mid-stride in front of a pink brick wall on Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal. In another, she’s ankle-deep in snow in front of a pink wall at Keyano College in Fort McMurray. In her profile pic, a much tighter shot, she looks straight at the camera, wearing cut-offs and a huge grin. She is, after all, in front of the mecca of pink walls, the Paul Smith store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. “If you want your picture very wide, you have to wait for the other people to leave,” she says. “There are different groups of people all along the wall getting a slice of the pink.”
With millions of Instagrammers looking for artful backdrops, municipalities, neighbourhoods and individual businesses are hiring artists to give the people what they want. The technicolour Wynwood Walls in Miami draw Art Basel spillovers and bachelorettes alike. Mural festivals are popping up everywhere from Estonia to New Zealand. And tours of Instagrammable walls are a hit from Hollywood to Hong Kong. But as every neighbourhood slaps up some angel wings and hauls out the pink paint, our streets – and Instagram feeds – are beginning to look awfully similar.
Long before hashtags came along, street art used to be edgy, even dangerous. Just ask Banksy. Back in the 1990s, the famous satirical artist was hiding from police under a garbage truck when he noticed stencilling on the undercarriage and found the inspiration for his signature, and much speedier, style. Colette Miller, too, kept an eye out for the cops when she painted her first pair of angel wings on a metal wall in Los Angeles in 2012. The paint was barely dry when people started posing, hands held together in prayer, and posting their blessed photos online. Before you could say “City of Angels,” wings were showing up on walls all over the world.
“You get status by being in a place,” says John D. Boy, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam who studies Instagram. “But what actually happens is that places become non-places as they become more indistinct. No longer do people know that you are in L.A. when they see angel wings. You might just be in your own hometown where somebody painted the same thing.”
We have long used pictures of our travels to show off to family and friends: Think of the dreaded safari slide show in the neighbour’s basement. But Instagram is shifting our status-seeking away from where we are to how we look while we’re there.
Some murals do speak to location – take the memorial of Bobby Sands in Belfast, Northern Ireland, or the sleeping polar bear on the Polar Bear Holding Facility in Churchill, Manitoba. But a sense of place isn’t required for ’grammers to get the likes they are after. “When I am looking at walls I’m thinking, Does that stop me in my tracks and will that stop people when they’re scrolling through my social media feed?” says Hoang, who maps out the walls she wants to see before her plane lands in any city.
Yet in seeking the same visuals in city after city, travellers may also discover a plethora of differences – local flavours, restaurants and communities. For Hoang, who also gives tours of Instagrammable walls in Edmonton, “It becomes less about the individual wall and more about that neighbourhood or the experience of walking and exploring.” That’s exactly what an Edmonton restaurant owner had in mind when he launched a crowdfunding campaign to hire Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel to brighten the view from his patio in Old Strathcona. The result is one of Hoang’s favourite tour stops, a vibrant, geometrical beast that spans six storeys – and resembles murals the artist has painted in several places, from Munich to Morocco.
As street art moves from gritty to ’grammable, those commissioning murals to market a destination are getting savvier. The new almost-eight-metre-high eagle wings on Burrard and West 4th Avenue in Vancouver are “top of my list,” declares Hoang, who plans to add the mural to her collection soon. And when she posts the coveted photo, her followers won’t need to check her hashtags to see where she is: “Kitsilano” is written right over the wingtip.