Tuesday, November 10

Arlington Mural an Enigma and Kind of Silly

arlington mural jax

I've driven past the Arlington mural along the Arlington Expressway plenty of times by this point, and I'm still trying to figure it out. I know, it's art and individual and abstract, etc. But it's still supposed to mean something. To the artist, to residents, and to visitors. I'd like to make an attempt to decipher what the Arlington mural means in all or any of those contexts so that I can better explain it those who look to me for answers.

From an artist's perspective, I don't really know. Murals are huge, and they often resemble something painted by high schoolers with deeper meaning infused by 2nd graders. Always uplifting; bright future; justice; peace; hope. Often painted steps from a given city's worst "projects" housing. Those big smiles looking down on weekly violence.

Technically, I enjoy the Murray Hill mural because it kind of says, "Screw murals." A giant painting of Bill Murray, who isn't even the neighborhood namesake, is a poignant reminder of absolutely nothing. And if your part of town doesn't need affirmation from bold,smiling,god-sized children, then it's cool to have fun with the whole thing. Arlington is different, and someone seems to believe that the stereotypical mural (peppered with a few oddities) was the way to go.

I actually don't know who makes the decisions about murals in Jacksonville. I was never asked for my input on Arlington's mural. Maybe the city just arranges for an artist to get his or her hands on a building and leaves it at that. Maybe each community has a committee. I have to believe there are sketches and then some kind of discussion before the mural goes up. Then again, I believed that sort of thing would happen for major local developments, but it only really happens if neighbors get wind of a project. If nothing else, the artist probably drew something out and had someone critique the idea. Even if it's a mom who generally thinks everything the artist does is wonderful. Anyhow, the point is that there's probably a plan before the mural gets underway, as it's not just some graffiti hastily sprayed on an overpass. I only mention it because certain elements of the Arlington mural seem somewhat haphazard. Or they are intentional and artistic to a point I don't understand them.

Since the Arlington mural is a bit of an acrostic, we'll begin the analysis with the A and then move on to each letter in order to better understand the true meaning of the mural.


The A is written on a helmet that is Jaguar teal and also reads "Duuuval" and "904" (apparently in case it ever gets lost). However, it's not clear that the helmet is actually for football, as its adorning the head of a small Asian girl. Or boy. But we're talking kindergarten, so I assume it's more of a bike or scooter helmet. Maybe a street-crossing helmet. The white A is created with three strips of athletic tape being used, I would imagine, to repair a major crack in said helmet. Clever, yes, but also an opportunity to remind parents that cracked helmets need to be replaced immediately due to lack of efficacy. The A rectangle also has an animal pattern faintly added to the background. It may be Jaguar print, further implying a football franchise connection. The black smiley face sticker is an enigma, since it's not a sticker that tends to be used in reality, and the emoji version is old unicode and has no current meaning beyond being old-school.

The meaning of the A itself is a bit of a mystery to me. Based on other letters, it appears there is a meaning, but I'm not entirely sure here. Since we do see some kind of a helmet, A might represent Athletics, though I'm not sure Arlington is home to more athletes than any other part of Jacksonville. Any A, especially one that seems slightly jagged, could represent Anarchy, but the rest of the imagery does not support this interpretation. The most obvious association is that the A means Asian, being that this is the only Asian person depicted, but that would be kind of racially insensitive. It could stand for America, where throngs of Asians/girls have become pro football players. Achieve? Action? Angry? Animal? Aggressive? I don't know. My personal theory is that the artist was told to incorporate the Jaguars, Duuuval, 904, and an Asian somewhere in the mural, and the first tile was used to check all the boxes.


The R-rectangle is fairly straightforward, though surreal, with a young man in a barbershop chair getting his hair done...in the shape of the R. I believe the structural integrity of an afro is such that a shape such as an R cannot be sculpted. Maybe a pyramid or another solid shape could work. However, when I searched for hair sculptures, I was able to find elaborate creations using long hair, which is not what's implied in the mural. So the R isn't really possible, but what does it mean?

It could be that the R stands for Reality, an ironic word given the image. My daughter and I both surmised Razor because of the lines in the kid's hair, as well as the fact that he's seemingly wearing a covering to protect himself from the haircut he's receiving. I'm not sure how a razor is meaningful to the whole community. Arlington is known as a place to buy or fix a car, but I'm not sure barber shops are more prevalent than in other locales. Risque could be the word, since the haircut could be considered as such, along with part of Arlington's reputation as "Sin City." Respect would be a go-to mural concept, though it's not an obvious connection to the image. I guess it could be Race or Racism, but that seems to be creating an unnecessary discussion based on what we see. Same goes for Rap. Based on having taught some Duval middle school children, Reading could have been a better choice than whatever this represents: he could be holding a book as he gets his haircut.


Remember when I questioned whether the mural artist had planned the whole project out or not? When every letter gets its own canvas except for two that are squeezed together, viewers might assume someone counted or divided wrong on the building. Or ran out of ideas. Regardless, Li ends up being one of the tiles. I figured perhaps the combined letters created an important word, but Li is just a Chinese unit of measurement. The image itself depicts the back of someone's head, presumably looking up at the partly cloudy skies before an afternoon rain storm. The hair is cut short and dyed (pink, green, and blue) to once again show an animal pattern, Jaguar or otherwise. Interestingly, the Li is not shaved into the head this time, but superimposed over the image. I imagine the word we are supposed to see is Lift or Light. Something beginning with Li. It could be a reference to "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which has a Jacksonville connection. Liberal? Listen? Life? I guess I expect my murals to have many right answers rather than no right answers/all wrong answers. Anything seems like a stretch and unrelated to both the previous tiles and the area of Arlington, or at least that's how I'm starting to feel as I move through the mural.


Just when it's not certain the letters in the mural mean anything at all, the N seems to represent a Night scene. Albeit an imaginary night scene, complete with a woman looking up at butterflies. Sure, there are some butterflies that fly around at night, and they're called moths. It's possible the enchanted-faced Black lady is mesmerized by Arlington's night-flying butterflies, or she may be enthralled by the stars. It is true that you can sort of see some stars in Arlington, sometimes, so I can buy stars and gigantic moths as a standard Night experience. Since there are 5,000 types of Nymphalidea butterflies, that could be the answer. Maybe dreaming during a Nap. Or this tile might be all about Nature, and maybe the stars are fireflies or mosquitoes getting electrocuted by one of those zapper lights.


In case anyone had any thoughts that this acrostic wasn’t really an acrostic, the G seems to most definitely stand for Giraffe. Because it depicts a giraffe. In Arlington. 100%, without a doubt, G is for Giraffe. Within Africa, there may be some Giraffes in Nigeria or Namibia, though I am not sure how those African countries relate to Jacksonville any more than does a random image of a Giraffe. In the painting, the G itself seems to represent the sun nearing sunset on the savannah. We can see an Acadia tree in the background, further indicating the scene is in Africa and not Arlington. Perhaps the meaning is more interpretive than literal, and we’re being encouraged to be more like the Giraffe. Long necks to watch out for our neighbors or something of that nature. If you see a Giraffe in your dreams, it might signify welfare and happiness, or that you currently can’t make your dreams come true. Personally, I’ve never seen a Giraffe in my dreams, but maybe people who drive by one every day on the Arlington Expressway do see them. Giraffes can also signify leadership, since tall people are often seen as leaders, and short people who are leaders will often pretend to be taller.


The T itself seems to be part of some industrial structure, maybe a bridge or the Arlington Expressway. And then there’s some abstract art in the background and foreground. Technology is kind of a blanket word for advancements in society, but we often don’t associate bridges with the word. I’m thinking Tacky could work, as there are parts of Arlington that fit this description, and the tile itself is kind of Tacky. Maybe Threshold, implying Arlington is on the cusp of greatness (or turning into the worst section of Jax). It could be Turbulent, since the art conflicts with the industrial scene, and people keep shooting at each other in Arlington.


Again, this tile seems to obviously imply Ocean (according to my daughter). I first saw it as Oprah, but then I looked closer to see all the waves surrounding the Ocean lady. The O itself could be a full moon behind Oprah the Ocean lady, maybe saying something about tides. I don’t know. The Ocean isn’t really part of Arlington, as it’s more of a river and rivulet part of town, but I guess the water is brackish. I suppose the word might really be Ominous, as Oprah the Ocean lady could flood Arlington during a hurricane.


The artist could be going for Nothing on Red Background for this tile. We can see some sort of plant life spreading, but it’s unclear if it’s in the water or on some red ground. Maybe it’s pond water in a jar. The closest plant I could find with an N is Nepeta, though I don’t know if it spreads in this way. I suppose it’s Nebulous, if nothing else.


The Arlington mural is a good example of the danger of an acrostic, whether meanings were forced or non-existent. A viewer is looking for all of the letters to mean something if some of the letters do. Even if we toss out the letter meanings individually, the mural as a whole seems to have no real message. Random people and scenes, which don’t fully (or even partially) represent a diverse area with an interesting history. For example, we have a movie studio in Arlington, and a university, some nature preserves, an outdated mall, a Fortune 500 company, lots of river access, and tons of slummy apartment complexes in between a sea of ranch-style.smallish homes. Kids play in culverts and swamps. People flock to various dollar-type stores. And there are all kinds of nonsensical diagonal streets that get you lost in sketchy neighborhoods with people fixing cars in their front lawns. That’s Arlington to most of us. Not Giraffes, weird hair choices, and Oprah. The best I can say about the Arlington mural is that it is not cliche, but that's not the same as saying it makes sense or inspires viewers. Also, if an elementary school put this whole mural together, I apologize for critiquing your ideas, but your teacher should have helped a little more.

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