Good street art in Malta isn’t common enough.
There are some great murals and literal mock-ups at places like the Msida Skate Park, in San Gwann, hidden around some corners of Sliema and of course at the abandoned White Rocks complex.
The island’s dedication to the medium even made international headlines as a sort of oasis for street art in an ignorant and uncultured world.
This week, arguably Malta’s best street artist, James Micallef Grimauld, created quite the stunning mural of flamingos on the blank wall of a guesthouse in Munxar. It featured shockingly bright pink birds flying amidst a shining blue sky and some awesomely-painted clouds. It stands at 85 square metres and is quite the eye-catching statement.
Of course, within hours of it being painted, after poor Micallef Grimauld spent up to eight hours in a cherry picker working away, a local Munxar resident called authorities to complain about the mural.
Munxar, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a tiny village in Gozo with a total of 1,454 inhabitants.
The guesthouse’ owners were told they needed to paint over the mural as it was breaching the Development Planning Act; specifically a provision that bars “alterations” to a building include plastering or painting that “materially alters the external appearance of a structure so as to render the appearance inconsistent with the character of the structure or neighbouring structures”.
“In this case, the site is located within the Urban Conservation Area (UCA) of Munxar. The mural is visible from the public street at close and medium range, as well as from distance views. It is evident that the painting is not in congruence with the streetscape,” a Planning Authority spokesperson said.
People were outraged – many wanted, and still want, the mural to remain in place, even if it is breaking Malta’s legal planning policies.
And herein lies the problem – of course it’s pretty and adds a splash of life to the street, but one can’t call for rule of law and authorities to drop the hammer in some cases but then expect them to back off and let people break the law (even if they never meant to) when you personally think it’s fine.
There’s no question that the mural is aesthetically pleasing and may even be a great idea for Munxar touristically. I hate a blank white wall just as much as the next guy.
But as it stands, there’s an entire policy in place specifically to conserve Munxar’s old-school, traditional vibe.
Should the policy be amended? Possibly.
But until it is, anyone choosing to purposefully ignore it by calling for the mural to remain is showing a dangerous tendency to bend or break the law – or only flag the importance of following the law – whenever it suits them. A tendency that seems to be more common in Malta than one may think.
And this isn’t like smoking a joint in your bedroom, where no one will see you or be affected. This is about fundamentally changing the feel of an entire village.
And anyone angry at how fast authorities reacted to this when there are other more egregious crimes occurring in Malta – would you rather have authorities respond to reports slower in future then?
And the logic here is pretty obvious.
What happens when, just one road away from the flamingos, a mural showing Dom Mintoff/Eddie Fenech Adami/Joseph Muscat at their loudest suddenly appeared. Brightly coloured and visible from afar, would you be such as quick to allow that mural to stay and break policy?
Or would you be the first to call it out, saying Malta had become basically North Korea with a mural like that there?
Lovin Malta held a poll asking people whether they wanted the flamingos to remain, or be removed. The overwhelming majority of people wanted the flamingos to stay.
Maybe that means it’s time to reconsider policies aimed to conserve Malta’s more quaint areas if that’s what most people want.
The flamingo mural could be to Munxar what the Cerne Abbas Giant is the Dorset.
Eventually with enough effort, Munxar could eventually become Gozo’s brightly coloured Shinjuku district.
To be honest though, many people, including tourists, would probably love that. But would the residents of Munxar?