‘Peace and Joy’ mural colors Downtown Berkeley: An interview with Nigel Sussman

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

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The cartoonish block words “peace” and “joy” seemingly appeared overnight, on what was previously a drab green wall of an unidentified building in Downtown Berkeley. The three-dimensional letters, painted in cheerful shades of blue, stretch across the corner of this structure located at the intersection of University and Shattuck avenues. The presence of the mural in this public space posits its universal message to all of its viewers — late-night McDonald’s patrons, students hurrying to campus and idle drivers stopped at a red light.

The “Peace and Joy” mural was commissioned by the Downtown Berkeley Association as a branding effort for the city, as well as a creative method to curb graffiti. A signature at the top of the mural explains the seeming familiarity of the artwork — it is a product of Nigel Sussman, an illustrator and muralist who has taken up several local projects around Berkeley, brightening the streets with his signature creative playfulness.

“Murals (are) a big part of my work,” Sussman said. “And I like doing things locally, as much as possible, because I feel like it contributes to the immediate environment.”

Sussman’s new work features the words “peace” and “joy” painted over an assorted background of black, green, blue and orange. The words, separated by a single peace sign, are drawn in clean block letters that are systematically overlapped. The mural also features the commissioned phrase of “Meet me downtown” in a speech bubble, as well as “#downtownberkeleyrocks.”

The local art piece is painted on a plywood wall with exterior house paint. As the work is relatively small-scale for a mural, Sussman worked on this piece alone, and the installation process took just one day. The location of the mural in a corner allowed for the strategic design of the block letters so that they appear stretched, but when the viewer stands in a specific spot of the corner, the words are evened out for a subtle three-dimensional effect. The bright and cheerful color scheme was chosen to help the letters contrast with the originally green wall.

Although the nonprofit organization suggested that the artist utilize the words “peace” and “joy,” the mural is Sussman’s own interpretation of a message that could be perceived as cliche. The artist focused on the inherent positivity of these words, encompassing the letters with thick outlines of flowers and succulents. These plants function as a sign of health and growth, amplifying the optimism of the surrounded words in a subtle, symbolic way.

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

“It’s a good, solid, generic kind of positive message that everyone can relate to,” Sussman explained. “No matter what your beliefs or traditions may be, peace and joy are something that we should all be able to get behind.”

Sussman’s investment in murals as an art form is a curious one, as they are a medium that deviate from the characteristics of traditional commercial art. Sporadic paintings that color neighborhood walls — rather than expensive canvases — rarely experience active audiences that seek them out.

This passivity of viewership makes them less appreciative of the works that interrupt these public spaces. A common challenge has been to define the boundaries between graffiti and street art: Why is one valued as a creative endeavor and the other demeaned as a gross transgression?

“Graffiti and street art are the same, but different at the same time,” Sussman answered. “One is attempting to coexist with the landscape, and the other is just uninvited and invasive.”

Murals, then, are artistic efforts to enhance their surroundings — but because they are not confined within the safety of certain elegant spaces that require fees for admission, they are often vulnerable and subject to vandalism. In addition, street art is characterized by ephemerality, as its residence in a public sphere renders its very presence precarious. For example, the “Peace and Joy” mural is expected to be on display until construction starts on the Acheson Commons project, but further directives for its future were not given.

These problems arise because street art is uniquely site-specific, adding color to specific streets and their local communities. But this feature of site specificity is also what empowers street art as an important agent of visual culture. Street art claim public spaces as their own, asserting its artistic presence as local symbols of identity.

Most importantly, artworks in these open sites challenge the walls of the museum as the defining factor of art. Art is made available to all — not just to those who can afford tickets. With site specificity, street art defies the cultural elitism of selective access, introducing art to everyone’s day-to-day life.

“People should be able to see art all the time, instead of just on big blank walls or big swatches of neutral tones,” Sussman said. “I add color to create landmarks that make people happy to see art.”

Contact Jennifer Jeong at [email protected].